A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
« Ma sœur, mon frère, je m’adresse à vous. Je m’adresse à votre cœur. Nous sommes malheureux. Nous portons trop. Cette disgrâce est insupportable. Nous n’avons pas cessé de pleurer. Nous entendons la voix d’un fantôme; nous avons mis le feu à notre maison; nous ne pouvons pas nous lever, car nous avons enterré notre patrie dans les cendres ! Ma sœur, mon frère, je m’adresse à votre cœur. »
“You see my idea?” Honoré asked Broughton. “I say, you, my sister, I speak to you, your heart.”
“I suspect,” Broughton said, “that much of your time in the cafés is spent in making such addresses. The nation of France finds herself in reduced circumstances, beyond doubt; however, what have you to say that is material to our purpose?”
“That the government, and our Monsieur Trochu most especially, love the people of Paris, as God loves his children; and so like the mysteries, their meaning is for us to gain the wisdom of contemplating. And I say that, for the economy of the nation, if we give to the generals all the cannons―you see, monsieur, they retire from war.” Honoré paused, sorting his English. He had never heard Broughton speak his own language with any fluency. He had begun, though, to take note of Broughton’s ways. Broughton did not squander an advantage he found continued useful.
Yet Honoré preferred this, that their conversations be in the language he hoped to learn well. He had a plan, as he had mentioned; he must begin pronouncing his English words correctly.
“They retire, you see, monsieur, and the guns are melted to make coins. So they will not print paper money and make the cost of everything high. And the generals are paid without taxes.”
“Well, that is wonderfully specious.”
“It may be,” Honoré said, looking carefully at Broughton. “But you don’t like my other idea.”
“I thought you had ventured dangerously close to satire. You mustn’t fail to appreciate the hazards imposed by martial law.”
Tweedloe, in his latest communication, had told a story. He kept greenhouses, and allowed his gardener, Allenby, a liberal purse when ordering exotic specimens. Over the cultivation of these, Tweedloe and Allenby together pottered cozily.
“Broughton,” Tweedloe wrote, “there is a lesson in this that I am about to relate.”
Continued from “about to relate”
One day, a box had arrived from Southern Africa, clearly the worse for its travels. Allenby, unwrapping the sacking that had seemed all it contained, came at last upon a desiccated portion of root. Its label―if ever there had been one―had gone missing.
Undaunted, Allenby potted it up; he exercised temperance in watering, taking the root’s origin into account. His care of the lifeless article was, “…an act of pure faith, but Allenby’s heart is in sympathy with his roots and cuttings.” More than a month passed. Then a leaf, overnight, shot up, unfurling itself in the shape of a heart streaked with gold.
“Which I mean for you to understand literally,” Tweedloe wrote. “Allenby takes inordinate pride in his African orphan, although he has no idea what it is, and neither have I. It tends to attract white fly, and it flowers sparsely. Yet it lives, when it had seemed impossible that it should.”
Gremot had the right sort of ability for Tweedloe’s organization; Tweedloe, having first recruited him, of course knew this, but now that―for over a month―Gremot had been doing them real service, Tweedloe asked that Broughton draw up a character.
Gremot, Broughton had written, therefore―in a letter to be micro-photographed and posted inside a tiny capsule fitted to a pigeon’s leg―showed an excellent apprehension of his duties, an apprehension to which an indifferent education appeared no barrier. He took instruction well; and even his maiden effort (after which his innovations had come at a steady pace, his writing flowering with an ingenuity truly mendacious) had demonstrated a politician’s gift for the extended, if empty, metaphor. Gremot’s over-dependence on him, a legacy of illness, had not lasted, as Broughton had suspected it would not.
“…and had he succeeded in passing every test, I would take it less comfortably.”
Gremot had courage; he had also cowardice. He did not complain of hunger or cold (a distinction common to his class, Broughton felt). Gremot maintained, alongside this stoicism, a foolish optimism; his emotions were volatile, yet he seemed incapable of violence. His anger, when he felt himself unjustly treated, could run to despair; but by the simplest of kindnesses he could be induced to shed any grudge, and his joy at every pleasure was great.
He had, as well, a determined inclination to run afoul.
Writing as “Hephaestus”, Honoré hammered, as it were, at the forge of reason; also (by private association) addressing Amédée, whether or not he might know it. Speaking otherwise of the enemy, Honoré had revived an old premise.
A uniform, as we see, can convey an authority not native to the wearer; yet it is a privilege to wear one, and often no measure is taken of a man’s fitness to do so, other than of privilege itself. Reputation is gained, easily enough, from the trappings of favoritism; in like fashion, a man may gain a reputation from the holding of any appointment, in the way that a title confers the perception of nobility, or the power to choose and discard, discretion.
“You are a writer of articles, of course. You know the sort of thing.”
Broughton had said this at the beginning, showing to Honoré the small desk that was his own. “But when you speak, for example, of this mining of excellence, I feel that your analogy ought to be stronger. What does one dig up from the bedrock? By what means does one separate the gold from the dross? The man on the street, in his present straits, dreams, presumably, neither of an abstract virtue, nor a lump of tin.”
Honoré’s pride in his long-cherished phrase had been touched to a depth of gratitude by these words—that Broughton cared not only to see, but with an intelligent appreciation to read, his work…would trouble himself, even, to criticize it unfairly in this way. Broughton respected Honoré’s profession, believed that he had a profession; and with a sentimental uplift of feeling―possibly a son’s love for a father―Honoré had tried to memorize, and repeat to himself, each word of Broughton’s counsel.
Abundance, he had written, (not altogether satirically) is a fine thing, a product of Heaven’s grace, one which we cannot manufacture for ourselves. We have not, to take an instance, run out of horsemeat. We may propose ourselves to receive, the people having been given this to consume in abundance, grace of a type, and we would do well to demonstrate our appreciation. Luck is always to be desired; often it is the case that we are lucky enough to have bread. We must not despise luck, for by what other means should we have bread at all? Hope, then, being of all virtues the most excellent, and the government putting up many placards promising to the people this or that—will we not embrace this consideration, for shall not hope unite us?
Honoré’s ideas were given free to all interested readers, all welcome to take them up…to improve on them, if they liked. But Broughton supposed he had not been so clever.
“Have you any more of your bills to distribute?”
Broughton saw Gremot answer by ferreting beneath half-finished compositions and sundry personal property which, quite at home, had accumulated on his desk.
“Well, bring them,” he said. “I am paying a call this afternoon. You may walk along with me.”
He preferred, as he’d said to Gremot on the day they’d set out for Paris, to speak of their work during these walks, although city streets were not private, in the way of country lanes. Ears, along the boulevard Montparnasse, could not only overhear, but many encountered there had been pricked for that purpose exactly. Broughton compensated―he exploited, in fact―the city’s network of informants, by imparting to Gremot in increments, later quizzing him to gauge his understanding.
At the first cross-street, they turned sharp north; later they turned again eastwards, putting a harsh breeze, and the late-afternoon sun, at their backs. Both Honoré and Broughton stood taller now, and lifted the brims of their hats. They began to move among side lanes. Honoré saw a man, a few doors ahead, appearing to shelter from the cold, protected by an alcove’s narrow half-column. Black-clad, he bulked there like a canker, wearing a cape over his winter coat, his hat pulled low, a beard obscuring that part of his face that showed above the collar. Whether he watched, or whether he waited, no one could have said. His boots shuffled circles in the snow that dusted the step. In his hands he held a crockery dish, steam rising over its lip. He lifted this, and mouthed its edge. A woman huddled at the man’s feet, her eyes fixing on each gobbet of broth that crawled along his beard and froze there, following every wasted drop that spilled to flavor the snow. Her ungloved hands dug, and she touched her fingertips to her tongue. She was cloaked in tattered cloths; she might, for that matter, have folded herself in bedclothes and worn these as winter wraps.
Timing his approach, Honoré fell behind Broughton, then lunged as he passed, brandishing a handbill, a white rectangle of fluttering paper thrust in the man’s face.
“Please take this, monsieur, it costs nothing.”
The dish struck stone. The woman, on her knees, her rags falling away from her shoulders, scooped broken crockery, and picked bits of meat from her palm. Honoré ducked a fist that would have struck his jaw, flinging up an arm, the blow damped by the sleeve of his coat. Obscenities flew after him.
Once again he tucked his sheaf of bills under his arm, and caught up to Broughton.
“Well, you have the general idea,” Broughton said. “But bear in mind, Gremot, that mere clumsiness will learn from its mistakes. Why that particular fellow?”
“He is a detective. He follows me. But, you will say I imagine it.”
“On the contrary. It would surprise me if you had not attracted that sort of attention. Please remember that I have asked you not to be overzealous.”
And it was not that Honoré doubted he might be seized by this, or by another, detective; nor did he doubt the accounts of summary executions Broughton read to him. A cell made no difference. He asked only for an audience and a means of addressing it; and of that, he was certain. He had friends of his own in Paris. Broughton did not know everything.
At the house—its windows now shuttered—where in August Gérard’s stepfather had sent him off with a flea in his ear, Honoré had stood staring up from the street, unconvinced that even a servant remained. But his rattling of the doorknocker brought an elderly houseman, of the type belonging more to the domicile than to the family; and Honoré was ushered into the parlor. The furniture had been draped in dust-cloths, the lamps unlit for want of gas, and Gérard was here alone, wearing a dressing gown over his suit; his complexion, once seen exposed to the light of day, livid. But he denied being unwell.
“It’s all this wretched snow and cold; and all I’ve been left to take responsibility for, of course…all that I have to worry over. Yes, I’ve had some foolishness from my mother about leaving the city, but I can’t. I can’t possibly. Do you smell the rottenness around you, Honoré? They have piled the faggots high, and the corpse has been laid out…but it is for us to touch the torch to the pyre.” Then, brushing aside this unanswerable, and somewhat mad, comment, Gérard became brisk. “I’ll put on my coat, and we will go to lunch.”
At the restaurant, Gérard tapped his fingers on the cloth, and made quibbles with the waiter, while he and Honoré forked apart a bony fish that Gérard said had been fried in sawdust, and drank something parboiled, that Gérard said had been meant for soup and was being passed off as coffee. He would not admit to having ever spoken of Chalons in earnest.
“But, you say you have been in good health, Gérard?”
To this, his friend neither replied nor reciprocated with the enquiry that would have allowed Honoré to tell his own story. Gérard wished to talk about his finances, about Jean-Gilles, about the property his stepfather had sold for far too little money. “But it’s all held up, in any case, because of the war. Honoré, now that I have something coming to me, a small amount that I will use to make an investment…I’ve been thinking about your newspaper. My stepfather can advise what he likes; I will not use my inheritance to enrich the banks.”
For this promise Honoré forgave Gérard every trespass, and after lunch took a rambling walk with him about the environs of the Panthéon. As they passed through the market of St-Germain, Gérard refused to queue, not for the overpriced cheeses, not for the costly and doubtful sausages; not the plucked birds, long in the neck and scant in the breast, that hung in rows, and bore no label.
“But, she has chocolate.” Honoré tapped Gérard’s shoulder, pointing out a ramshackle display, atop which were one or two crates filled with straw and paper cones, their contents not aromatic of chocolate, or of anything else, other than fat gone off.
“Chocolate bitters mixed up with candle wax,” Gérard told him. “You will make yourself sick…but stop here if you like. I’m going on.”
Burying his parcel in his pocket, Honoré caught up to Gérard, and they walked to look upon the frozen Seine, as far as the Pont Saint-Louis, only to learn they could not cross. Guards were stationed at the bridgehead; at this bafflement Gérard had fallen into a black silence, and had not responded to any of Honoré’s prompts by inviting Honoré to stay at his house.
He’d returned, therefore, to the room he shared with the Garonds―or that they, rather, having lodged there first, shared with him. An hour before sunset, he walked up the rue de la Clef, passed through a gate along the rue St-Menard, and crossed a dirty court, entering his house from the rear. He did not stay outdoors after dark, not knowing the ways of the night people here, as did the Garonds. If he ate at their table, he made his own meal, and brought his own store of food―and this they respected utterly, as he respected theirs. For a space, until it had grown fully dark, Honoré would sit with them, trading the desultory remarks of those who have little in common. The room was furnished with a single bed. When night fell, Honoré wished the Garonds good hunting, put out the lamp, and crawled with his coat on and his muffler wrapped around his head, under the blankets, which held the least trace of warmth, the Garonds having slept there all day.
Now he used his penknife to cut the three chocolates into six, then twelve, and bit into one of these quarters, which he found treacly and bland, with a hint of rancidity―yet, while he watched the Garonds layer socks, tie aprons with many pockets over thick knitted pullovers, draw scarves over noses and chins, buttoning coats over all, Honoré ate one piece after another, and by the time the Garonds had donned gloves snipped to keep their fingertips bare, and had made of themselves, altogether, two dark-clad and thickset figures of indistinguishable sex, he had nothing left to offer them. Not that they had expected it.
They had eyes like cats, Honoré supposed. There was competition among the rag-pickers and scavengers of Paris, and though Honoré had told Garond he was a clerk, still Garond kept his secrets. He had said this much:
“You would not think so, monsieur, but the easiest place is one where they have set a man to watch, and where everyone who comes and goes looks like all the rest, and where they keep orderly hours.” This raised for Honoré the picture of an army barracks, but might also describe a factory, or the prefecture buildings of the Île de la Cité. A rag would do for the Garonds, a spent cartridge, or a cast-off horseshoe. That, they considered a lucky find. There were rats in Paris, so a crumb of food was unlikely, but the rats themselves had value. Madame Garond had shown to Honoré a gossamer chain of gold links, from which hung a red stone ringed in seed pearls.
“But you would sell this, would you not?” he had asked her.
“Not here. Not in the city.” She watched him for a moment. Seeing that he did not understand, she added, “It’s no use to me to be taken for a thief.”
“I know a man,” Garond said, “who is able to make gas from filings. He will pay good silver for any amount of iron.” At “good silver” he emphasized his meaning by smacking a hand flat on the table. “Do you think I’m lying?”
Honoré, sleepy and shivering, had only nodded and yawned. This habit of suspicion was characteristic of both Garonds. He made an effort, then made Garond laugh, when he answered, “Why not? Perhaps he can’t make gas from silver.”
Madame, a few days past, had caught Honoré by the hand; as soon as he’d closed the door behind him, she’d drawn him to the window. “Keep yourself back. Tell me which of those men you recognize.” He peered around the curtain’s edge. The court below rippled with sheets of ice, vaporing at the surface under the rays of the setting sun, appearing at intervals consistent with the rooms above. Hugging the uneven contour of the paving stones, day by day the ice preserved a record―indelible in this arctic spell―of the tenants’ accumulated night slops. Honoré saw a stranger, corpulent and bearded, his black, cloaked shape blocking the gate, creating for Honoré the fanciful impression that this had become the mouth of a tunnel. The other man, he did know.
“That is the tinsmith, the Sicilian.”
“Ha! True enough.” Her eyes shone with the pleasure of giving dismaying news. “But his friend there, that one has been watching you. And him you don’t know.”
“No, he never followed you here,” Garond pre-empted Honoré’s question. “He knows you live at this house. No, he does not follow you at all. He waits along the street where you walk each day. He is ahead of you, not behind. He allows you to pass him by. He uses the eyes of others to keep informed. But he will not allow another to make the arrest. Then, he would not be paid.”
At the cost of a painful exposure, each morning Honoré made his appearance presentable. He broke the ice of his washbasin, found the core of still-liquid water, dipped his flannel and wrung it out, rubbed this over a scrap of soap, washed his face, and shaved, if he felt he needed to. All this with his coat and socks on. He then bared one arm and shoulder, scrubbed himself and covered these, repeating the process left to right, down to the removal of one sock, and then the other.
Each day, Honoré rode the omnibus from the fifth arrondissement to the sixth. His fellow passengers were laborers, who found their work from day to day, and among whom he now lived. Like Honoré, they emerged into biting air at sunrise, complexions drained to a bluish-white, noses running and eyes watering. They bent against the wind, tucking their hands under their arms. Without the luxury of coal to burn, or a stove in which to burn it, even the unemployed had no reason to keep to their rooms. Families trailed together; strangers drew body heat from strangers, and all spent their days waiting. They waited for rations, for tickets to obtain rations; they waited to complain of being cheated of rations.
But when he heard anyone offer criticism of the nation’s new leadership, Honoré was quick to speak in its favor. The army, he might insist, deserved every privilege bestowed on it by the provisional government. Laws (and of course, in this time of war, they must have many laws, new laws every day, it might be) could not be allowed to hamper the defenders of Paris. The rationing schemes of the government were entirely sound.
“You may not yourself receive your portion of bread, but that proves nothing. Neither do you know what the ministers discuss when they assemble in their chamber; but, monsieur, you do not disbelieve in these meetings, merely because the government can no longer be seen in Paris…and you know the proclamations that emerge afterwards are proof of its existence. If there is any bread in Paris, you must, by the same logic, be confident that it has been given to someone.”
In this case, his auditor had laughed, and had thrown up his hands as one who concedes the point, entertained rather than persuaded. But Honoré hoped, all the more so for having raised a smile, that his words might be carried away and repeated.
On one of their early walks, Broughton had asked him, “Gremot, do you know what it means to be an agent provocateur?”
“Ah…do I know what it means?” Honoré tested Broughton’s phrase by repeating these words, but―as sometimes happened―he had hit on the right way of answering.
“Precisely my point. You ask the question I had hoped you would ask.”
This was gratifying, but the schoolmasterish lecture that followed, touching as it did on themes of economics and foreign affairs, strained the limits of Honoré’s patience for the guessing game he and Broughton played.
“A short war may be beneficial in a number of ways, not the least of which being, as the generals have observed, that it provides to the army’s restless and easily swayed young communists, what Tweedloe would call ‘wholesome exercise’…”
Yet, a longer period of hostilities ran the risk of forcing the hand of potential allies who preferred neutrality; neither could these neutral states permit a hegemony, one nation gaining, by means of conquest, an excess of influence over all. The blockading of seaports, the destruction of bridges and railways―“…and, for the war’s duration, the closing of borders, the loss of conduits within borders, the reduction of the labor force, must inevitably become deleterious to trade; thus deleterious to the fortunes of those whose livelihoods depend on trade. We do not wish to see a general war break out on the continent.”
“No, monsieur.” He supposed Broughton had forgotten he was himself on the continent.
Born in the Ardennes region, Honoré sympathized most closely with his neighbors, regardless of the border that ran between them; and sympathized, on broader terms, with all who shared his language. But he hadn’t loved the Empire, and could not, as a new Parisien, love the present government. He had no reason, either, to favor Prussian aims; he was not certain that Tweedloe favored them, though much of what Broughton said was undeniable.
Honoré had only a duty, and this was to follow Broughton’s instructions, because he was alive to follow them, and alive because Tweedloe had wanted him for this job.
He saw a notice board, papered over in bills and placards. He veered away from Broughton’s side, and, drawing his penknife, loosened the tack which fixed one official corner in place, punching this through the corner of his own bill. The other advisories he left alone. Half reckless is half defensible, as Honoré calculated: “I have been too enthusiastic,” he would say, if accused of tampering.
Broughton said: “I have a story to relate to you, Gremot. A young man was sent on a journey, to undertake a certain errand. This young man was clever and ambitious. His better qualities did not go unappreciated by those who employed him. However.” He lapsed into silence. This Broughton often did, as Honoré knew, for caution’s sake. He might not finish his story today, but take up the thread of it tomorrow, while they sat together in the office.
Broughton turned up a lane, one Honoré remembered well. “Have you been listening?” he asked.
“I have, monsieur.”
“The enemy is near. He is within the city walls.”
“He is not far, I have heard.”
“This young man,” Broughton went on, “had a high-handed way with those who were near to himself. In status. Or, one might say, in prosperity…or the lack thereof. He would have insisted, had one asked”―and over his shoulder, Broughton smiled―“that he had done nothing. However, there were those who took offense. The degree to which a man takes offense, and what he will do about it, vary with the individual.”
And here they were, to Honoré’s amazement, at the door. The porcelain clock must demand a high price; it had not sold, or been shifted from its place…and though from a nearby street, a bell tolled the hour, the chiming clock kept silent. The shop door, in the winter, sported no bouquet of lavender. Broughton grasped the handle and pushed. Honoré followed him inside.
The interior was warm, lit through the grill of a stove by orange embers; lit again by a grey outdoor light that fell from the window and winked upon blue figures, done in faience, gilt-edged mirrors stacked one against another, watches and chains under glass cloches, ivory handled brushes and porcelain ring trays, each article displayed with others of its own type. But the hand that had ordered them had not recently swept the dust from them.
Honoré found the stove’s warmth comforting…and yet he felt, in this respite from ordinary suffering, an unexpected pang of sadness. The air was close and smoke-filled. He began to cough. To his embarrassment, he could not stop coughing. He withdrew to face the lane, stuffed his gloved fist into his mouth, and looked through the glass at the winter birds.
Broughton said, “The matter is serious, Gremot. You will die in prison.”
“Edmond, it is the third day I have sold nothing.”
The woman seated behind the counter spoke. Her voice was distinctive, soft and clear at first; then as she laughed, it broke into a throaty rasp. Like Honoré, she was seized with a dry cough. She sliced her hand through the air impatiently. Broughton answered, “I am distressed to hear you tell me so, madame.”
“He,” she said, “expects you today. He is eager to greet you, but he has a visitor.”
“Madame Rose, I will introduce you, in the meantime, to Monsieur Gremot.”
Honoré stepped forward to put a hand across the counter, but already Mme Rose had left her chair and bustled round to embrace him, as though she had been his mother, long expecting his return. “Yes,” she said, “this winter is a misery. How horrid it is to freeze!” In flinging her arms open, she had disarrayed her brocaded shawl; she caught its ends, pulled them tight, and shuddered theatrically.
Broughton said, “Indeed, I should be quite content to sit beside my hearth on such a day. But Monsieur Serrigny must bear with a second visitor whose business cannot be put aside.”
She guessed Broughton’s meaning at once. “Edmond, this visitor has no business at all!” And Mme Rose gave him a broad smile. Somewhere a door swung on its hinges, followed by the sound of retreating footsteps. Another door closed, and with such care, that all they heard was a soft scrubbing of wood against the floorboards, followed by the clicking of the latch. Even so, hearing the footsteps, Honoré came alert. People did have characteristic ways about them, and in the city of Compiègne, he had walked behind Anne Lugard in mesmerized despair, street after street. But he bore Broughton’s rules in mind; and this, especially, for having been admonished over, he had taken to heart. Not the shop, not the name of Serrigny, and not this visitor—who might have been anyone. He would give no sign.
“Edmond, I am pleased to see you!”
The man who greeted Broughton must be at least a close relative of the Comte de Boussac, though the face that so resembled the great aeronaut’s was younger and more amiable. He had entered the shop from a passageway that led to a rear door, the door through which the visitor had vanished. “And here is Monsieur Gremot. He is looking secretive.”
“Gremot has made strides. He is trying not to look astonished.”
Their plan, Broughton feared, would likely meet with resistance. Gremot had been enjoying his independence; he was about to be brought up short. He had been taught; he had yet to learn. In the best of circumstances, a matter of months is not time enough…neither to learn, nor perhaps to live. Tweedloe allowed Broughton to dispose of Gremot as he saw fit; Gremot might be, in this endeavor to stir the revolutionary pot, worked to death like a cart horse. The thing had been done before. And in such places as Paris and Brussels, there was no dearth of suggestible and unhealthy young men, whose capture by the police could not threaten those who employed them.
On the other hand, if he wished to keep Gremot, Broughton could put no great faith in the restraining power of debt. Tweedloe’s fifty-two pounds had been a calculated figment, a number designed to snare Gremot’s conscience and hold it poised between gratitude and anxiety. Too large a sum, and Gremot would run; too little, and he would not feel the weight of his deliverance. Tweedloe’s debt was thus (even taking M. Eckhold’s twenty pounds or so into account) merely a device―and fear makes the weakest form of control. Under the influence of fear, the powerless seek safety; they may seek it anywhere.
It was mutual interest which made useful servants. Gremot would like to leave his origins behind and rise in society; yet the well of inadequacy in which he’d been reared might never be filled to equilibrium. The unwisdom of Gremot’s choices bewildered Broughton. Upon earning a regular wage for the first time in his life, he’d first dandified his appearance with the purchase of a closely tailored suit; and had been getting of late, from some source or other, cigars, which he nursed at his desk, puffing and hacking. Gremot boasted, slyly, to Broughton, about the money he saved with his slum-house lodgings, and with a shrug had responded to Broughton’s questioning face―“But I am never there. I only sleep there.”
Once more Gremot had shrugged when Broughton, calling attention to his cough, had asked, “You do not find the arrangement rather―to state the matter bluntly―squalid?” And in the indifferent way in which he sometimes understood English, Gremot had addressed not the house but the habit: “No, monsieur, it is the healthiest thing to fill the lungs with smoke.”
So far as Broughton had observed, Gremot did not possess much in the way of a conscience. His morality was guided by a code of auspices. Should he gain entrée to the middle class, Gremot would readily adopt the moral tone of the middle class. His folkloric notion of retribution, in that case, would be superseded by bourgeois social constraints, and informed by gossip.
“Gremot,” Broughton said now, “I have obtained for you new employment.”
Continued from “new employment”
Honoré, repeating Broughton’s “making strides”—under his breath, had turned his back on the two men; for a moment he’d stared at the shelves, meaning by this to convey something of insult…but he had been distracted by a brass perpetual calendar. This he’d taken down and cleaned with his sleeve; becoming preoccupied, then, with the workings of the little wheel that changed the numbers, he had stood, flipping them over and over. Broughton and Serrigny he supposed to be merely chatting. But thinking he’d heard his name mentioned, Honoré looked up and met Broughton’s eye.
“Monsieur Serrigny practices at law. Until lately, he had held the position of public prosecutor,” Broughton told Honoré. “Your brother, monsieur, has not been dislodged from his post?”
Serrigny laughed. He then glanced at the door, as though he might be overheard. “Edmond, you know that my brother was a friend of the Emperor and that he very much disliked the Emperor. I believe he is in the same case with Monsieur Favre. But, I think not even a Paris mob would dare dislodge him from his post.”
Honoré heard Mme Rose begin to sing; she had slipped into another room, and her voice came to them low and halting, among other sounds of drawers sliding and dishes clinking onto a tabletop. She broke off, cleared her throat, hacked at her infirmity…“Hrrh!”…then, unperturbed where Honoré would have been embarrassed, she began to sing again.
“I know of no obstacle to beginning at once,” Broughton said. “However, Gremot has not been listening.”
“Madame Rose,” Serrigny answered him, “keeps faultless accounts.” Broughton nodded. They agreed well, it seemed, on what they had decided.
“Come and see the room.”
Serrigny ushered Broughton and Honoré down the passageway, leading them into a closet that might ordinarily have served for storage, but was made up as a bedchamber. Compact in furnishings, it held a narrow cot, dressed with a quilt and white counterpane, pushed tight against the outer wall. Light fell across the rug from a high, square window. The rug had been excellent in its day; its hues the amber and aqua of an evening sky, the fashion of long ago. A chair sat angled before a writing desk snugged between cot and divan; this last pressing the interior wall, its velvet the color of tobacco, its seat polished flat from wear. Honoré had been looking about for some evidence of Serrigny’s visitor.
“Now,” Serrigny said. “Madame Rose allows me this small room for my own use, at times I do not wish my presence in the city known. However, we are under siege, and Paris has become over-crowded. Why be selfish? Monsieur Gremot, do you find it acceptable?”
“I suppose…” Honoré tailed off, finding nothing served by pretense. “Monsieur Serrigny, I am sorry to say, I have not been listening, as Monsieur Broughton tells you.” He thought he had been half listening, but Serrigny’s question made no sense to him.
“It is not so much to copy letters,” Broughton said. “Much of the work can be done here.”
This sounded ominous. Honoré had presumed that by “new” employment, Broughton had meant only some additional task, one to be added to his other work. Copying letters was the job of a clerk. And what had Serrigny said about Mme Rose?
“Now,” Broughton said, “you will recall, Gremot, that you were given safe conduct to pass through the gates of Paris on my warranty that you were in my employ…”
“No!” Honoré took a step towards the door.
“Gremot,” Broughton said, “are you contemplating some very foolish act? Have I been wrong to suggest to Monsieur Serrigny that he might find you trustworthy?”
“No, monsieur,” Honoré answered, but in an undertone, added, “I will not like to copy letters.”
“No you won’t,” Broughton said placidly, “nor would anyone expect you to.”
“To be considered trustworthy―”
Serrigny reached past Honoré, pushing the door shut; and by his pause, and his gravity, communicated an instruction: Look me in the eye.
Honoré looked Serrigny in the eye, and the lawyer went on: “To go about seeing and hearing; yet, to be so inconspicuous as to be scarcely noticed, Monsieur Gremot―a clerk might have such an advantage. I could not. Everything I do is remarked upon. Do you see that you might make yourself quite useful, but you cannot do so, if you have not the patience to learn your business?”
It was enticing, this promise of moving one day in exalted circles, of knowing and of being known by great men. Honoré passed pleasant hours on the strength of it. Then again, there was the actual work. He thought of the diligence with which he’d practiced to steady his hand, the pride he’d taken in showing his improved handwriting to Broughton…
Honoré sighed, that Broughton had seen fit to reward him in this way. M. Sartain, Serrigny’s secretary, had brought another sheaf of letters yesterday morning, and requested three copies of each. Each must be identical from one to the next; each dry paragraph, laboring onwards from clause to clause, might consist of a single sentence. This style was nothing like the concise, driven reportage Honoré admired. He lost interest in the words themselves.
His little desk would not hold the original, plus three sheets of letter paper arrayed in a row; thus he had not wholly perfected the idea to which he’d devoted much abstracted thought. He found it heartening to finish three things at once, rather than one thing at a time, with two left to begin. But M. Sartain, confronted with Honoré’s scheme for making the work efficient, had observed, “Also, if you start, and keep at it steadily, you may finish sooner.”
Honoré felt he had earned his coffee and cigar. He lifted his head, listening. Mme. Rose had a visitor.
“Marie, bring me the clock that no one looks at. You know, I have an intuition. And if I am right, I’m afraid Jacques must also have played his role.” She had her back to him, and her hat, cocked and cockaded, and her cascade of sausage curls―which seemed fulsome, though Honoré could not have judged them false―wagged and bounced as she waved her hands about.
“Madame Rose, let me get the clock.”
He stepped into the shop. He hoped he had not rebuked this visitor, but Mme Rose was in frail health. “Sylvie,” she said, half-rising from her chair in any case, “here is my Honoré.”
Sylvie beamed. Her face was highly powdered. Though she spoke as a near contemporary of Mme Rose, she appeared far younger. And like Mme. Rose, on this first meeting, Sylvie wrapped Honoré in an embrace as though he were a cherished relative. “But, Marie, he is nothing like Jacques.”
“Well, I haven’t said so. I hope he is not. Honoré, the clock you like so well belongs to Sylvie. She has an idea about it.”
“Ah, do you like my clock? We will see if it really is my clock.”
And, though she might from the start have fetched the clock herself, Sylvie followed Honoré to the window. She tapped her fingers against his elbow, thrust her arm through his; then lifting her other hand as though to balance herself, leaned on tiptoe to view the clock in the brighter light of day. A furrow between her brows left a small crease in her bisque complexion. “Turn it over,” she told him, “my clock was made in Lausanne.”
He showed her the maker’s mark.
“Ah! Read it to me.”
Honoré saw a gilded crown cresting a letter so ornate that he couldn’t guess which it was. He did not know how to interpret such things. Her frown reappeared. And then Sylvie pressed a forefinger above her nose. “I age myself, Marie, fretting over trifles. No, since I have been wrong, I will say so.” She smiled at Mme Rose. She turned her head, and, like a beacon, the warmth and charm of her smile glowed upon Honoré.
“It chimes very prettily. That is why you like it,” Sylvie told him. “Take it to your room…I make it a gift to you! If I had thought,” she turned again to Mme Rose, “that she would be happy with fifty francs, I would not have been so sentimental. But when I told her she could have sold it for a thousand…”
“Sylvie,” Mme Rose interrupted.
“And of course I would have kept my promise to them.”
“You know that’s not true.”
Sylvie blinked; then, understanding her friend, shrugged. “I don’t say that she wouldn’t have had to go among the hotels and find an American to pay so much. But that is just what she does, of course. And Jacques didn’t think it was so funny, a wedding gift. Since he refused to speak to you about it, I said to myself, ‘Jacques has lied to his mother’.”
Mme Rose glanced at Honoré, as she had done once or twice during this conversation. “You gave them money, when they came to you and asked. I would not.”
“But the last time, when she came to me alone,” Sylvie spoke to Mme Rose with a certain gentleness, “she insisted―only fifty francs.”
Honoré put the clock on the counter, careful not to allow the porcelain to strike the glass top discordantly. He had felt the vibration of the chiming mechanism through his fingertips; Sylvie’s clock was preparing to sound the hour. But he had noticed an ashen weariness pass over Mme Rose’s face. He went to her and gathered the shawl that had fallen from her shoulders. Who was she, that they spoke of? She was Anne Lugard…but in Honoré’s hearing they would not say so.
“It might have been any sum of money. The information was useless.” Mme Rose caught Honoré’s hand and stopped him. “No, my dear, don’t bother about me.” It was one o’clock; the chime rang and quit.
“You want to rest, Marie,” Sylvie said to her. “Your Honoré will escort me home.”
“Here you are in your room.”
Mme Rose came through the door, which he did not keep shut, and in two steps, she had reached the divan, where she rested, sinking prone against its cushions. Only because she objected to his fussing over her, did Honoré keep to his chair; but after a minute’s scratching with his pen, he said, “I will bring you the counterpane.”
“No, Honoré. I am far from feeling chilled.”
“I will make coffee for you,” he suggested, still troubled by her breathing.
“You cannot in the least make coffee. Honoré, you have been visiting Sylvie, and you have been coming home in the very early hours, so that I will believe you have not.”
She knew the truth, and had not been as soundly asleep as he had supposed; she had summed up, succinct as a prosecutor, forestalling excuses.
“I apologize, Madame Rose.”
She waved her hand. “That is your own affair. La penseuse, they call her. Now that she is a widow, she would like to keep a grand salon. My Sylvie has a number of acquaintances.”
“But,” he protested. She had made him feel that he ought to protest, although her words had not been precisely critical. “She knows Yves Amédée. And Gérard Costa has persuaded her to help us…she will invest in the new Progressiste by subscription.”
“Thirty francs a month.”
Mme Rose pressed her lips together. Honoré, by restating it, enlarged on his point.
“That is three hundred and sixty a year.”
“Pah! Sylvie has a new enthusiasm; this time, for the communists.”
If he had not known his former roommates, Honoré might have felt more respect for the city’s curfew; but he’d seen, each night, how the Garonds defied it. He had only three streets to cross to reach Sylvie’s house. He dressed himself in somber black, and carried in his pocket one from Mme Rose’s stock of apothecary bottles, filled with a dash of icing sugar. He’d practiced the line he would use: “Of course, Monsieur Costa may survive an attack without his medicine.” He had even considered that Gérard looked in need of medicine, whereas Sylvie was both blooming and flirtatious; Honoré would not have liked bringing a sergent-de-ville to her door.
Of the ways in which the army’s senior staff could be held at fault for having lost the war, Honoré and Gérard hoped to determine nine, to divide these evenly, and to make a name for the new journal with three substantial complaints per article, published in a sensational series.
“Provisioning,” Honoré read to him from their list, “use of reserves, artillery, generalship…you see, Gérard, as for the conduct of the generals alone, you have also: direction, example, strategy, cooperation.”
Gérard, in one of his antic moods, and pacing Sylvie’s drawing room, had shaken his head. “This is becoming too ambitious. We’ll have a dozen things before we know it…and then you will think of a dozen more. Honoré, you want to write a book.”
He had been running a hand with each pass along the gilded frame of Sylvie’s portrait―a younger Sylvie rendered in the style of the notable M. Binn, hanging between the windows, posed with a dog at her feet and a lyre pressed to her heart. Gérard absently wiped his fingertips on his coat, caught himself, tugged out his lapel to check for dust, and went on. “I suppose we might write a book…but no―the publishers are in business for profit; they will say we are ordinary men, and that ordinary men know nothing of statesmanship or matters of national defense. The bourgeois republicans are incapable of keeping order without help from the generals; yet the generals themselves are creatures of the dying aristocracy. The one class inflates the aspirations of the other. Soon enough, we will see Bazaine’s memoirs brought out…or Monsieur Gambetta’s. Fame has more power than truth.”
Gérard fished out a small blue bottle from his coat pocket, uncorked it and shook three or four drops of its contents into his wine glass. He extended the glass towards Honoré, as though to confirm that, among friends, he concealed none of his propensities. He drained the glass, set it on a table; then, after plumping a cushion, Gérard stretched out on the floor, resting his head on this.
“But, I have opinions of my own; why should they be buried?”
Honoré sat with a decanter of Beaujolais wine from General Perreau’s cellar between his knees, a cigar between his knuckles. He was squeezed onto the sofa next to Sylvie; at his other side spread a stack of pamphlets, and notes that he and Gérard had been compiling. In the current climate, screeds of every hue appeared at the end of a thrusting hand, under the eyes of any person who walked the streets. In their collection were expressed the views of the government, of royalists and Bonapartists, united in one respect—that both lifted their heads to sniff at every fresh political breeze; and of Gérard’s fellow communists, whose leaders from jealousy he could not love, and whom he dismissed as “soulless anarchists, pretenders,” adding under his breath: “Well…as you know, men like Limolette.”
Though she received guests in this room, Sylvie was pleased to bustle them into armchairs; she enjoyed disorder, these evidences of her men busy at their serious endeavor―“You see what they’ve done to my house. Too impossible! I apologize, of course…but I don’t dare touch anything”―the sofa, for the safety of its brocade, had been draped with a Persian rug, the cushions were on the floor, where Sylvie had tossed them, and where Gérard, at four in the morning, had fallen into a doze. Honoré followed Sylvie upstairs to her room.
“Has she told you,” Mme Rose asked now, “what her husband did for many years?”
“You will please tell me.”
“Oh, it is nothing that you need look so grave about. He was a savant, Monsieur Perreau…concerning, I mean, these disagreements that gentlemen have. He knew how to explain the rules in such a way as to spare the honor of a great house. You have met Monsieur Serrigny’s brother?”
Honoré, who somewhat admired the Comte de Boussac, nodded.
“Well, then, you know how these insults come about. Joachim knew every means of postponing a duel. His position of respect was such, they say―Sylvie says―that those who consulted him hung on his very silences. And, when he arrived at these chateaux, he always shut himself in his room for a full day, with his books.”
“She did tell me some of this.”
Sylvie spoke in familiar terms of court figures, Honoré’s appreciation for these souvenirs having been somewhat spoiled in advance by Anne’s satire of her aunt. Yet, for all her money (and she might be only modestly well off), he had met at Sylvie’s house, not the haute monde, but average social climbers; not ministers of state, but old Orleanists, genteel and poor. He could give her the benefit of the doubt only by supposing that Sylvie had other friends to whom she would not introduce him.
Yet he felt that Mme Rose had been meting out her facts. She might withhold a great deal. She wished for Honoré to see her point, and he couldn’t.
“Sylvie,” she told him, “worked to get the good pension she lives on.”
Today was Wednesday, and it was on Wednesdays that Serrigny visited Mme Rose.
“Sylvie Perreau,” he took up the topic, entering the room, as he was entitled to do at will. “I spoke to her an hour ago. She is a woman of energy. I can see that these late nights have taken the greater toll on Monsieur Gremot. However, here I see him bent over his work. Sartain has misjudged him, perhaps.” He walked to the desk, and glanced at Honoré’s arrangement of papers. Serrigny said nothing as he backed a step away; the room being so compact, he was already near enough to Mme Rose to ease her a little higher on her cushion, and draw her shawl closer. He sat in front of the divan, on the rug, and took her hand in his.
“Marie, I have asked Sylvie, who is a good woman…”
“She is a dear friend, I have never said otherwise,” Mme Rose murmured.
“…if she will not send that little maid of hers to you, once or twice a week. I feel that Monsieur Gremot is not helpful to you in keeping house.”
“Robert, be kind to Honoré.”
“I believe I have been, exceedingly so. What is it, Monsieur Gremot, that I see you busy with?”
“Monsieur Serrigny.” Honoré had taken care over the lettering of his mocked-up Progressiste. He was impressed by his own handiwork; in print, Gérard’s newspaper (for while he deplored this subordination, Honoré’s second-place role could not be helped, if Gérard were underwriting the project) would stand next to any of the widely-circulated Paris journals. He placed his work in Serrigny’s hands, and was flattered to see Serrigny begin to read, and carry on reading to the end of the page, his face sober. The articles were genuine, opinions written by Gérard, or by Honoré himself.
“But let me speak to you, monsieur, about politics.”
“The subject interests me. I am convinced I know very little of politics. You, Monsieur Gremot, must instruct me.”
“I,” Honoré began, “am discontented.”
“Of course, you mean for me to understand you hypothetically.”
“Yes, monsieur, I am discontented. I join with others, who feel as I do. We are all discontented. As to the bankers, the factory owners, the officials―we despise them all. The nobility, the church,” Honoré added, waving his hand.
“You despise everyone, other than yourselves.”
“No, we despise ourselves also. Exactly what I mean to say. We have organized a party of our own; we elect leaders. But we dislike our leaders. They tell us what to do; we do not wish to be told. And though we want these things done, we would rather have them done, than do them, you see. Our leaders dislike us. They must seize power to rule us…set themselves above us and make use of their authority; but all the while, being what they are, they must repudiate those who set themselves above others and make use of their authority.”
“It is somewhat disadvantageous to be a socialist. Or, have you become a communist?”
“The Progressiste, monsieur, is a journal of the people. To my readers, I say, ‘my ideas will be more to your liking, than those you hear from the others who claim to be your voice’.”
“Monsieur Gremot, you propose to craft your message in a fashion that is dishonest and pandering, for the purpose of selling papers.”
“No, monsieur. But if you will like to become my sponsor, the message of the Progressiste will be your message.”
“Oh, so that is what you have in mind!” Serrigny laughed, and continued to laugh, and after a time said, “But then again, I may consider your scheme. Broughton believes you can be taught to blend into the wallpaper. I am not so certain you have a talent for quiet work.”
End of Book One
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto