16 Ventôse, Year V of the Republic
(March 6, 1797)
Since the twenty-fourth of Frimaire, Aristide Ravel had dreamed at least a dozen times of the guillotine.
This time it was Mathieu. He saw Mathieu as he always did, as he had last seen him, hands bound behind his back, waiting in the rain in the center of Place de la Révolution. They called it Place de la Concorde now—Harmony Square—but for those who had known Paris three or four years ago, in 1793 and ’94, it would forever remain Place de la Révolution, the place of the scaffold.
Sometimes, he thought, lying wide awake in the dark, your dreams were bizarre or grotesque, altogether divorced from reality; at other times they were a fantastic, distorted version of your everyday existence. This dream had been neither. It had played the scene as he had remembered it far too often over the course of the past three and a half years, not a word or movement out of place.
Five carts—four for the living and one for the dead. One cart bringing up the rear for Valazé, who had had the supreme impertinence to stab himself in the very hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal as the sentence of death was read out, as if denying the right of the Republic to take his life. Four carts for the living, for the twenty who had not thought to smuggle a dagger into the Tribunal, who had clung to the faint hope of acquittal.
Mathieu had known better. He had never been such a starry-eyed and earnest optimist as some of the others with whom he was to die, had always had the saving grace of a gentle cynicism and a sharp and roguish sense of humor. He was still making jokes when they sent him to his death. Though Aristide could not hear the words he spoke on the long journey beneath a bleak, chilly sky, he could see the smile on Mathieu’s face and the feverish sparkle in his eyes. Was he jesting for the sake of keeping up his companions’ courage, or his own? One or two of them smiled with him, even as the guillotine loomed into view through the fine October rain, even as the carts swayed to a halt and the executioner’s assistants called their names and sorted them into a line, the most famous toward the end, to please the crowd.
Mathieu was sixth in the line, small fry among men like Bishop Fauchet, Vergniaud, Brissot. Perhaps the careful arrangement of the order in which they were to die had been the subject of his final jest. A glance up at the guillotine, at the thing that had, with a muted rattle and thud, just devoured Sillery, and then Mathieu turned to the man beside him and said something that made them both smile for an instant.
Mathieu had not looked about him since they arrived in the square, he in the executioner’s cart, Aristide following. Then at last, perhaps sensing his time was ebbing fast, Mathieu glanced over his shoulder toward the watching crowd. Their eyes met.
What do you say to your oldest friend when they are the last words you will ever exchange?
In the midst of the staring crowd, of course, and with fifteen feet between them, they could say nothing. Perhaps there was nothing to be said. Aristide saw Mathieu’s lips move, murmuring a few words; then Mathieu merely gave him a quick grin, and the slightest of nods, and turned away, but not before Aristide saw him swallow hard.
A pool of blood had already collected under the scaffold and a muddy crimson rivulet trickled away between the cobbles, dissolving beneath the pattering rain.
And suddenly Mathieu was at the head of the line, and above him an assistant executioner was guiding a man up the steep steps while another heaved a bucketful of water over the seesaw-plank. A third, with the list in his hand, approached Mathieu, reached for his elbow.
Aristide turned away, suddenly tasting acid bile at the back of his throat, and shouldered his way past those behind him. A moment later he heard the blade fall once again—five—and he increased his pace, running almost through the fringes of the crowd toward the stony road that led out to the Champs-Élysées, anything to avoid hearing the sound of the blade as it fell for the sixth time.
He had walked blindly for an hour through the meadows until he was nearly at the barrier, as the rain thinned out to a drizzle. It was only then that he had wondered if, at the last instant, Mathieu had glanced over his shoulder again, searching for a friend, and found no one.
* * *
He woke on the morning of the sixteenth of Ventôse, well before dawn. He had not dreamed of Mathieu’s death for months, and had hoped that finally he was free of it. Rising at last, he threw on his clothes in the gloom before the servant girl could arrive with the usual candle and jug of hot water, and spent an hour walking aimlessly as he had on that rainy morning three and a half years before, wrapped in dark thoughts and memories.
According to the old calendar, it was early March, almost spring, well into the new year 1797; but there was little cheer in the narrow back streets of the Right Bank, where the poor felt the bite of poverty grow ever harsher while the nouveaux-riches of the Directory squandered their fortunes at the opulent cafés, gaming dens, and brothels of the Palais-Égalité a few streets away. Paris, lying beneath heavy clouds for days on end, seemed washed with charcoal gray.
At a few minutes to eight, as the lamplighters snuffed the last of the oil lamps that hung from ropes stretched from house to house, he wandered toward Rue Traversine and the police commissariat of the Section de la Butte-des-Moulins. Inspector Didier, meticulously writing a report at the raised desk in the antechamber where local folk waited to report a crime, air a grievance, or file a complaint with Commissaire Brasseur, cast him a sour glance.
“He’s not in yet.”
Aristide raised an eyebrow. Commissaires were supposed to be more or less on duty from eight in the morning to ten in the evening, and Brasseur was ordinarily quite punctual.
“Where is the commissaire, if you please?” demanded a pale, black-clad young woman who was seated on one of the empty benches, a small bundle at her feet.
“He’ll be in, citizeness,” said Didier, without glancing up again from his report. “Any time now.”
“But it’s quarter past eight.”
“His mother-in-law’s been visiting from the country,” Aristide said, moving toward the young woman. “I gather it’s not the jolliest of times for Brasseur.”
She turned. “Well, it’s not the jolliest time for us, either!” Scowling, she abruptly checked herself instead of continuing in the same acrimonious fashion. “Pardon me. Your colleague here”—she cast a scorching glance at Didier—“already knows why I’m here, and why I want an interview with the commissaire.”
“This fellow’s no colleague of mine,” said Didier, waspishly. “He has no official standing here; do you, Ravel?”
Aristide leaned against the wall, folded his arms, and looked at him, without bothering to reply. Didier and he had always got along about as well as a pair of tomcats.
The young woman examined Aristide more thoroughly, taking in his shabby black suit, well-worn top boots, lank dark hair threaded with gray. “I suppose you must be a police spy,” she said at last, coldly. “I’ve heard of people like you.”
“I’m an agent of the police, citizeness.”
“Same thing, isn’t it?” Didier remarked.
Aristide suppressed a sharp retort; he did not care to satisfy Didier by taking offense. Although most people would insist a police spy was what Aristide was, he detested the term, which for a century and a half had been a synonym for “informer.” He had made a modestly profitable career of investigating matters, usually criminal in nature, when the mood took him, and if many of those matters were investigated on behalf of the police, it was because Brasseur was a friend and trusted his competence.
He turned his back to Didier and added, to the young woman, “The two are not necessarily one and the same. I happen to be a friend of the commissaire.”
That was a jab at Didier, who was no friend to Brasseur. But because he was the senior inspector at the Butte-des-Moulins section commissariat, Didier (who had always been of the opinion that it should have been he and not Brasseur who was elected commissaire back in 1790) could not simply be discharged. Didier would never understand that his complete lack of imagination was what would keep him—unless he made powerful friends—from rising higher in the ranks of the police. No doubt he could, however, out of sheer spite, accuse Brasseur of royalism or some such ludicrous offense if he were ever to be sacked, and cause Brasseur a great deal of unnecessary and undeserved trouble.
Didier shut his teeth on a snappish retort as Brasseur flung open the door and strode inside, shaking droplets of mist from his hat and broad shoulders. “My faith,” he announced to no one in particular, “I’ve had enough of that old cow! If she doesn’t go back to Nevers pretty soon, I’ll murder her myself!” His glance alighted on Aristide and he grinned. “Morning, Ravel. Don’t take me at my word.”
Aristide nodded a good morning as Brasseur turned to Didier. “All right, what should I know about?”
They disappeared into the corridor that led to Brasseur’s office. “They shouldn’t be long,” Aristide said to the young woman. “Brasseur wasn’t here yesterday, so—”
“I know he wasn’t here yesterday,” she interrupted. “That’s why I’m here now. If he’d been here as he’s supposed to be, perhaps none of this nonsense would have happened.”
“That inspector,” she said, with a glance down the corridor, “made a dreadful mistake yesterday, and I’ve come to speak to the commissaire in the hope he can clear it all up.”
“I’m sure he can,” said Aristide. “Brasseur’s a just, conscientious man.”
She looked dubious but said nothing more. They waited in silence, as peddlers raucously cried their wares outside in the street, until Didier returned from Brasseur’s office. Aristide gestured her to her feet. “Come on, citizeness. Second door on the left.”
“The commissaire didn’t say anything about seeing the citizeness now,” Didier snapped as they passed.
“That wouldn’t be because you didn’t mention it to him, would it?” said Aristide, without pausing. He opened Brasseur’s door without bothering to knock and ushered the young woman inside. “Brasseur, this citizeness claims she needs your help. Since she says it’s something to do with Didier, I imagine she’s right.”
Brasseur sighed and rubbed his eyes. “All right, citizeness, sit down and tell me what’s the matter.” Settling himself more comfortably in the hard wooden chair at his desk, which creaked under his solid weight, he eyed her with an inquisitive scowl.
“I suppose it’s in one of the reports in front of you,” she said, taking a chair. “A charge of poisoning against a girl named Jeannette Moineau. She’s one of our servants and the whole thing is absurd. Of course she didn’t poison anybody.”
“Poisoning?” He leafed through the reports. “Right, here it is. ‘Took the citizeness Jeannette Moineau, domestic official, age nineteen, employed at the house of the citizen Dupont on Rue des Moulins, into custody to answer charges of eight counts of poisoning’ . . . eight counts? . . . ‘and to await interrogation by the justice of the peace. Complaint against the said Moineau lodged by the citizeness Magdeleine Dupont, wife of Bouton.’ Hmm. A couple of statements . . . not much here. Why don’t you tell me more, citizeness? First of all, who are you?”
“Laurence Dupont. Citizeness Bouton is my sister-in-law.”
“Dupont, Dupont,” Brasseur muttered. He rose and ran a finger along one of the shelves of cardboard folders behind him. “Yes, here we are. Martin Dupont . . . man of finance, residing at the house belonging to him on Rue des Moulins, by all accounts a solid citizen, pays his taxes, police know nothing against him . . .”
“My father-in-law. But he’s just died, so my brother-in-law Gervais Dupont is now head of the family.”
“What’s this about eight counts of poisoning, citizeness?” Brasseur inquired.
“It’s completely ridiculous,” said Laurence. “My father-in-law died two days ago, on Saturday the fourth . . . the fourteenth, I mean,” she hastily corrected herself, and darted a quick glance at Brasseur to see if her use of the Christian calendar had irritated him. He said nothing and she continued. “He died on the fourteenth of Ventôse, in the evening, of a violent colic. Then something we ate at dinner yesterday, the fifteenth, had evidently gone bad, and nearly all of us who dined were taken a little ill. One of our dinner guests, a surgeon, said sometimes unbalanced servants might try to poison their employers; something of the sort had happened in his family once, years ago.”
“Don’t you trust your servants?” Aristide inquired.
“As much as anyone does, but the kitchenmaid—Jeannette—had only been with us a month. So Citizen Hébert, the surgeon, told us she ought to be investigated. Then my sister-in-law Magdeleine—Citizeness Bouton—seized on the notion that Jeannette had not only poisoned us, but also murdered old Martin. They searched Jeannette’s room and right away found some sort of powdery, gritty, light-colored stuff in her apron pocket, and a little packet of the same stuff in her drawer. Citizen Hébert thought it could be arsenic, and of course Magdeleine was so worked up she was ready to believe him, even though Citizen Hébert is really something of a fool.” She paused for breath and Brasseur glanced in Aristide’s direction.
“So the citizeness sent for the police?” Aristide said.
Laurence nodded. “Yes. Though Maître Frochot advised against it, since it was all very circumstantial and he thought it was probably just tainted food, but Hébert insisted.”
“A family friend, a notary. He’s the Old Man’s—he was the Old Man’s legal adviser and man of affairs.”
“ ‘The Old Man?’ ” Brasseur echoed her.
“My father-in-law—Martin Dupont. ‘The Old Man’ is what Gervais calls him. Citizen Commissaire, this whole affair has been blown completely out of proportion. We ate something that didn’t agree with us, and Martin must have eaten it previously, and died of it. I’ve seen enough of this maidservant to be quite sure she’s no more than an ordinary, honest, stupid country girl. The thought that she could poison anyone is ludicrous. I doubt she would even know what arsenic is.”
Brasseur leaned forward on his desk, interlocking his fingers, and fixed Laurence with a hard stare. “So you insist no one deliberately poisoned anybody?”
“Are you absolutely sure, then, citizeness, that this was just a bout of tainted food?”
She blinked. “But it must have been. If you knew the family, you couldn’t remotely imagine any of them poisoning someone.”
“I understand you’re reluctant to think this could be a case of murder,” he told her, “but do you honestly believe that all of you, including old Citizen Dupont, managed to eat the same bad food, on two different days, and that somehow the food he ate killed him, while what the rest of you ate—a day later, when the food would have spoiled even more—only gave you a stomachache?” He continued to stare at her, unsmiling. “Citizeness, this may be more serious than you think it is, or than you want to believe. I want you to try very hard to remember what you all ate for twenty-four hours before Citizen Dupont fell ill. On the thirteenth, did he eat anything that could have made him ill, and that none of you ate? And then did any of you take the same dish at dinner on the fifteenth? Something that might have spoiled?”
Laurence frowned and was silent for a moment, while Aristide glanced with an inquisitively raised eyebrow at Brasseur. “Well, citizeness?” Brasseur said at last.
“You’re right,” she admitted. “It goes beyond belief that the Old Man could have died from something we all shared. It’s a horrible thought, but . . . how long would poison take to make you mortally ill? Less than a day?”
“No more than a couple of hours, probably,” Aristide said, “if he seemed healthy at breakfast time and the dose was large enough to kill him by nightfall.”
“Then it couldn’t have been something he’d eaten the day before . . .” Laurence raised her head and gazed at Brasseur, and Aristide saw, for the first time, real fear in her eyes. “We all ate the same thing that day—Friday, I mean—cabbage soup and braised skate, which was fresh from the fish market. It must have been something in his breakfast on Saturday morning, the day he died, and he only took porridge, and coffee with milk . . . nothing that had been kept, and could have gone bad . . .”
“Was he the only one who ate porridge for breakfast?”
Laurence nodded, as if she did not trust her voice.
“Can you explain what Citizen Hébert found?” Brasseur inquired. “White powder, at the bottom of the girl’s pocket?”
“Well, we don’t even know what it is,” Laurence said, with a flash of her former asperity. “It could be anything. Maybe it’s salt. Or maybe Jeannette had a stomachache last week and went to the apothecary for a remedy. Why not ask her what it was?”
“Oh, you can be sure I’ll do that,” Brasseur said. “Didier doesn’t mention this white powder in his report, by the way.”
“Citizen Hébert took it with him for safekeeping before the police arrived. He should be coming here with it soon—”
“After a whole night in which he, or anyone else, had the opportunity to doctor it as he pleased?” Aristide said. “That’s completely irregular, citizeness. It should have been given to the police right away.”
“I did protest, you know,” Laurence retorted, turning toward him, “but who in that house ever pays attention to the poor relation?”
“I thought you said you were the late Citizen Dupont’s daughter-in-law.”
“I am. I’m his younger son’s widow. I’m also a distant cousin and the poorest of poor relations, so I have nowhere else to go. Are you satisfied, citizen?”
“Oh, please, continue.”
They inspected each other, stonily, each taking the other’s measure. Aristide knew she was unimpressed by what she saw: a tall, thin, unsmiling young man, not so young really, no longer in his first youth, but at thirty-eight not quite middle-aged. He cut an indifferent figure, he knew, in his shabby black costume, the telltale sign of a man of the professional classes who, for whatever reason, could afford only one suit of clothes.
Laurence Dupont had an interesting face, he thought, though the plain black mourning gown she wore did little to soften her looks. She might have been moderately pretty at sixteen, in the freshness of youth; but now, at about thirty, her dark brows were too heavy and too sharply angled, and the unsmiling mouth was too wide, the jaw too strong for beauty. Yet it was a face of character, lively with a wry and bitter intelligence.
Something about her seemed familiar, though he could not guess how they might have met before, except by passing each other in the street. Perhaps, he thought, it was her manner—something about the gaze, alert and intense, that reminded him of someone, or the slender, restless hands that clutched at the bundle she had brought with her.
“That’s all, I suppose,” Laurence said, turning back once more to Brasseur. “Magdeleine lodged a complaint and your inspector out there came over with a couple of others, and asked silly, useless questions of everyone and finally took Jeannette away with him. Oh, and he took all the dishes and cooking pots from yesterday’s dinner and made Magdeleine lock them in a cupboard, and said someone would be over this morning to fetch them away and look for arsenic in the soup tureen.” She paused, frowned, and continued. “Citizen Commissaire, it’s probably not my place to say it, but that inspector is an ass.”
“You needn’t tell me that, citizeness,” Brasseur said, with a sigh. “Dautry!”
“Commissaire?” said his secretary, flashing Aristide a grin as he thrust his head out the door that led to his own tiny office.
“We have a girl in custody?”
“Yes, Commissaire. Since last evening. Kitchenmaid suspected of poisoning the family.”
“Send Didier in here, will you?”