October 7, 1793
God help me, Désirée said to herself, as she tried to ignore the dull, persistent ache of her empty stomach, I cannot even make a living as a whore.
The fashionable hurried past her, eager to escape the chilly night air, toward the bright lights of the cafés, restaurants, theaters, and brothels of the Palais-Égalité. Along the stately length of the stone arcades, the lamps burned overhead, illuminating the restless swirl of humanity in its never-ending pursuit of amusement.
The women lurking beneath the rows of sculpted lime trees were banished from the light. Patient as the poor who once had formed lines before church doors to receive bread and soup, they waited, unsmiling, their eyes vacant, until some solitary figure from the milling crowd might fade away from the glitter and join them in the shadows.
She had waited hours in the dark, since before the twilight had fallen on a gray, wet October day, and seen the other women come and go, while only one man had approached her.
“You,” he had said, out of the darkness, plucking her sleeve. “You’ve a pretty figure. What’s your price?”
She had jerked about, surprised. He was middle-aged, stout, his neat frock coat cut in last year’s fashion: a bourgeois from the provinces enjoying a holiday in Paris.
“What’s your price?” he repeated.
That, at least, she knew; she had asked some of the other women what the going rate was. Those who had not laughed at her, snickering about amateurs, had been friendly enough. “Th-three sous, and the price of the room.”
“If they rent by the hour, then. I’m not looking to spend the whole night with you.”
“Yes, citizen.” She turned and gestured at the arcades, toward a small hotel that charged lower prices and turned a blind eye to what might go on behind closed doors (as did all hotels in the Palais-Égalité, even after the pleasure gardens had been “officially” purged of prostitutes). The man followed her.
They had nearly reached the hotel when abruptly he thrust his face in hers, squinting in the bright lamplight shining through a café window.
“No wonder you women skulk in the shadows. How old are you?”
“I—twenty-nine.” She had shaved five years from her true age, but evidently no one wanted anything over twenty-five or, better, twenty—
“And new to this line of work, from your manner. Well, I’m not paying for mutton dressed as lamb.”
She had gazed after his retreating figure for a moment, speechless. At last she had heaved a long sigh, half in regret, half in relief, and fingered the coins in her pocket. Her last two sous—less than the price of a single meal. She had preserved her virtue for another half hour, and soon would virtuously starve.
Of all the misnamed folk in the world, she mused, not for the first time, I am the most absurd. Désirée…but no one desires me, even as a whore.
“How much?” said a voice, a different voice, close beside her. “Not too much, I hope—you’re a little long in the tooth to be charging full price.”
“Two sous,” she muttered.
“Two sous for you? I don’t pay two sous for any trollop who’s past sixteen.” He ran his hands over her, snickering as he prodded her. “Not much meat on those bones. Half a sou for a quick one in the alley.” His hand was on her breast, clutching and kneading at her. “What do you say, little chicken?”
“I say you keep it to yourself until you’ve paid,” she said between clenched teeth, her cheeks burning, as she attempted to push him away, “and don’t paw at me in public.”
“Don’t paw at me in public!” he repeated in a high-pitched voice, with a sneer. “Dear me, how modest we are.” His other hand slid down and grabbed at her through her skirt, between her legs. The prodding, grasping fingers fumbled and groped and would not, would not let go of her. She wrenched her arm away and slapped him.
“You little bitch!”
Suddenly her ears were ringing, and a sharp pain was creeping along the line of her cheekbone to the back of her skull, and the world was spinning about her. She was sitting—no, lying—on something cold and wet. Struggling up to a sitting position, through a dim haze she saw him dust off his hands and saunter away.
“Bastard,” said one woman, a shabby one near her own age, as another laughed drunkenly and swayed off in pursuit of a customer. “All bastards, all of them.” She reached down and offered her hand. “Here.”
Désirée lurched to her knees, gritting her teeth in an attempt to swallow back her despair. The skirt of her green gown, her last dress, was dripping and smeared with mud.
“Mademoiselle?” said a man’s voice beside her. “Are you all right?”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, opened them, and found herself gazing up at a tall, lean man in a shabby overcoat. “Are you all right?” the man repeated, bending toward her. “That was quite a blow he gave you. Better you should sit down—you don’t want to faint. Someone might seize his opportunity to rob you.”
“Rob me—” she exclaimed, and all at once, to her hideous embarrassment, she burst into violent, gasping sobs. “Oh, dear God, if only there were something in my pocket to steal!”
The stranger shook his head and offered her a hand to help her to her feet. “Come, come, it can’t be all that bad—”
“Yes, it is that bad!” she screamed, no longer caring who might hear her. “What do you know about it? Look at me! Just a useless woman whom no one wants, not even as a whore, and with two sous to call her own!”
“Here, now,” he said, handing her a handkerchief and drawing her aside, away from the other women, “dry your eyes, squeeze out your skirts, and let’s get something warm inside you. You’ve not eaten, I suppose?”
“Eaten…” When had she eaten last? “Not since yesterday morning. Some bread.”
“Come with me.”
Dazed, Désirée followed him. He strode along with the easy step of one who was accustomed to walking, leading her out of the Palais-Égalité to the narrow side streets west of the gardens, at last pausing before a food stall whose owner had not yet hung up his shutters. “Here, some soup will do you good.”
She glanced up at him as he pulled out a few crumpled assignats for the soup seller. Her companion was a lean, dark-haired man of forty or so. A broad-brimmed, low-crowned round hat shadowed a long, stern face, which she could just make out in the gloom, though she caught the glitter of eyes in the feeble glimmer from the soup seller’s lantern. The man’s clothes were less than impressive; he wore an old, well-worn black worsted suit that might have belonged to a lawyer’s clerk, and hanging open over that a dark overcoat of indeterminate color, which once had been of good quality before moths and the passage of time had ravaged it.
“You’re very kind, citizen,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “After what I said to you. Anyone else would have pushed me into the mud again for such insolence.”
“Such men are swine. You’ve not been long in your trade, have you?”
“Only today. I had no more money, and nothing to eat, and the rent is due. And there’s no work in Paris, at least nothing I know how to do.”
The soup seller put a bowl and spoon before her. She seized the spoon and began wolfing down the soup. Oh, the exquisite feeling of having something in her stomach at last, vegetables, a little tough meat, and plenty of thick broth! The tall man watched her, smiling.
She glanced up at him, wishing she could scrape the bowl out with her finger to get up the last few drops. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, citizeness. You’re well-spoken,” he added, turning away from the stall. “Who and what are you, for God’s sake?”
“My father was the second son of a gentleman and owned a little land, but we never had two sous to rub together, and we lost the few dues from the property when the Revolution abolished them. Then my father died, two years ago, but not before he’d gambled away most of what we had; and I had to sell our property to settle his debts. I had a fiancé, but he jilted me in the end, because I had no fortune.” An old, monotonous story, one everyone had heard a dozen times before. She paused, but he merely nodded.
“So I came to Paris as companion to my mother’s cousin, who’s married to a rich man. Then her husband made advances, and when I—when I kicked him, he threw me out. That was four months ago. I can’t get any work. I don’t know any trade besides sewing, and half the dressmakers have shut up their shops and the other half aren’t hiring. I’ve sold everything I had, my bits of jewelry, my books, even my clothes. So at last I came here, to offer the only thing I had left to sell, but it seems I’m no good even for that.” Her stomach rumbled and she clasped her hands over it, embarrassed.
“I think your appetite wants more than some soup,” her unexpected savior observed. “There’s an eating-house nearby. Come along.”
She blinked away tears, so weary she had no strength left to resist. “A favor for a favor—that’s it, isn’t it? Do whatever you want. You can have me for the whole night if you like. At least the room will be warm.”
“You misunderstand me. I’m not looking for a whore. Let’s say,” he continued, as he steered her down the street and gestured to a narrow alley, “that I think you’ve had more than your share of ill luck. The least I can do, out of Christian charity, is to give you a hot meal.”
“Thank you, citizen,” she whispered, wondering how many months it had been since she had heard the word “Christian” used without derision. Many of the brutalized, bitter sansculottes, day laborers, and prostitutes she now saw every day had little love for the Catholic Church which, for centuries, had taxed them and dictated to them while its cynical, worldly bishops flaunted their wealth. Though the Church, in its present state-sanctioned, revolutionary form, was still tolerated, anticlerical feeling had been swelling of late.
“This way—it’s not far now.”
He gestured her onward and she preceded him into the empty alley, feeling her way. The closest street lamp was far behind them and the chinks of light from behind barred shutters, and the tiny new moon above, cast only a meager light, barely enough for her to see her groping hands.
“Are you sure this is the way?”
“It’s a shortcut. Keep going.”
She stumbled on a loose cobble, hearing it clatter like a pistol shot in the silence, and stopped short, heart pounding. She was all alone here with him, isolated and helpless, just as he wanted her.
Fool, she told herself. You credulous little fool.
She was going to be raped in an alley, by a degenerate with unnatural desires that a decent woman should not even know of, for the price of a bowl of soup.
She twisted about, but in his dark coat and broad hat he was invisible in the murk.
“Please—please don’t hurt me. I said you could do whatever you wanted. Just don’t hurt me.”
Now she could hear his breath, close by in the darkness. His arm slid about her from behind, clutching her to him until she felt the warmth of his body.
“I told you,” he murmured, “I don’t want that from you.”
He whispered a few words. She thought they might have been “May God forgive me,” in the last instant before the knife was at her throat.
The woman lay on her back in a narrow alley a few steps beyond the Palais-Égalité, sprawled in a great splash of her own blood, which had stained her sodden, mud-blotched green gown and trickled away, dissolving beneath the rain, along the channels between the rough cobbles. The stump of her neck looked as raw as cuts of meat at a butcher’s stall in the sullen gray of a wet morning.
Aristide Ravel stood in the alley, bareheaded, hands clasped behind the back of his shabby black redingote, and stared down at the mutilated corpse. All around them, the fine autumn rain dripped down.
“Death of the devil,” Brasseur said, beside him, hat in hand. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Aristide could well believe him. He had been working for Commissaire Brasseur as a freelance police investigator for seven years now, but even the brutality and vice of Paris had not prepared him for such a sight.
“Have your men found—” He was about to say “the head,” but using the definite article seemed cruelly impersonal, reducing the pathetic corpse before him to nothing more than a lump of flesh. He sucked in a breath and began again. “Have they found her head?”
“Not yet.” Brasseur was silent a moment, then spoke again, choking on hoarse fury.
“What sort of monster would do this?”
Aristide could not see that a decapitated corpse in an alley was much different from the decapitated corpses that the executioners now carted away, in twos and threes, from Place de la Révolution a few times a week; according to yesterday’s Moniteur, some of those guillotined during the past fortnight had been sentenced to death for minor infractions against authority that once, before the Revolution, would have meant no more than a public whipping or a month or two in prison. The Law of Suspects, passed three weeks before to preserve the struggling young Republic in a time of political and economic crisis, had abruptly transformed petty offenses into crimes and indifference into treason.
“You mean,” he said, “what sort of monster would do, in the street, what they often decree at the Revolutionary Tribunal?”
“That’s different,” Brasseur said, groping for words. “It’s—”
“This,” said Brasseur, ignoring his bitter sarcasm, “this is just—obscene.” He donned his hat, cramming it down against the chill rain, and puffed out a long sigh. “Dr. Prunelle’s on his way. What do you make of her?”
Aristide looked over the body, thinking how much one depended on the face to make such judgments. “Not young, but not yet old,” he said, eyeing her bony shoulders and veined hands. “I’d say thirty-five or forty. You?”
“Yes.” Brasseur knelt beside her and lifted her arm, moving it back and forth. “Killed sometime after dark last night. I don’t need a police surgeon to tell me she’s just beginning to go stiff, so I’d guess she died between dusk and midnight.”
Aristide nodded. In the congested center of Paris, a bloody, headless corpse could not have lain on the cobbles in daylight, even in the tiniest alleyway, without being stumbled upon within ten minutes. The side streets, however, swiftly emptied with the onset of darkness and the pickpockets, ruffians, bandits, and housebreakers that the night brought out.
“Who discovered her?” he inquired. “Do we have any idea who she is?”
“Not an inkling. The fellow who found her was a local on his way to work. Sells brooms on Rue St.—” Brasseur paused, annoyed with himself, and continued, avoiding the dubious word “Saint.” “On Rue Honoré. As to knowing her, what am I supposed to say? Without a face, all we can go on is the clothes and effects.” Brasseur bent once again over the corpse. “Try her pocket; she might have a civic card.”
Aristide knelt opposite him, taking care to keep out of the puddle of blood and the ever-present manure and refuse, and felt in the dead woman’s right-hand pocket. “Two sous in small change. A clean handkerchief, a bit thin and frayed. A copper thimble. A twist of thread and—damn it!—a needle folded inside a bit of old paper. A key, ordinary-looking, presumably to her lodging, and a smaller one to a case or a trunk. Nothing else. No identity card. Anything on your side?”
“Only a soiled handkerchief. And she’s not wearing a wedding ring.”
“That might have been stolen before we got here.”
Brasseur shook his head. “You’re a bachelor, Ravel. My wife claims the dent on her finger began to show after a couple of years of wearing her ring.” He raised the corpse’s hand. “No mark. No sign she’s ever worn a ring there.”
“I defer to your greater knowledge.” Aristide stared at the woman’s bloody gown a moment, brow puckered in thought, and then examined her hands, which often provided useful clues to identity.
“Well?” said Brasseur, after a few minutes of silence.
“She’s not a peasant. Nor a laborer, but not a woman of leisure either. Her hands don’t have the hard calluses of a lifelong worker, though she’s done some manual work in her time.”
Her modest gown, what he could see of it where the blood from her severed neck had not flooded all across the fichu, bodice, and sleeves, was of green calico, sprigged with small blue flowers. A great smear of mud soiled one side of the skirt and dirty water had stained much of the cloth. It was not the plain homespun of a peasant newly arrived in the city, nor did it show signs of multiple alterations or seem shabby enough to be a second- or third-hand piece of clothing purchased from the fripiers, the old-clothes dealers whose carts and rundown stalls were ubiquitous in the poorer quarters. It tallied with the image he had formed of a once-respectable woman now forced to support herself in any way she could.
“Her gown’s a decade old at least, well worn but carefully mended; it might be secondhand, but more likely one she’d owned for years. And it looks loose, as though she’d grown a good deal thinner lately and had not yet taken it in. I’d say a woman of the modest bourgeoisie, or perhaps a small landowner, who’s fallen on hard times and has had to shift for herself.”
Brasseur grunted. Food shortages and high prices, brought on by the war, continued to plague the city that troubled autumn, while rising unemployment, particularly in the luxury trades that had once catered to the wealthy, made the situation even worse for Paris’s poor.
“A woman with what might have been her last two sous in her pocket usually doesn’t have a fixed address,” he said. “That’ll be a treat, it will, trying to put a name on her.”
“Yes, I expect she was alone, to be in such straits. And who takes notice if a solitary woman disappears—one with no husband and no money?”
“Nobody,” said Brasseur. When the rent for her seedy furnished room came due, and his tenant was not present to pay it, a landlord would seize her effects as payment, advertise a room to let, and forget about her. “Well, I’ll send a couple of inspectors out to inquire at cheap lodgings.”
“Could she be local?” Aristide continued. “Any recent reports of missing women in the section?”
“None, so far.”
“Well, if it turns out she wasn’t from the neighborhood, then what would bring her here to this quarter? Not shopping—the poor stick to their own sections. We’re just a few steps from the Palais-Égalité—”
“That’s what some of my men are calling it now. Palaces aren’t in fashion, you know.”
Aristide sighed. Soon so many suspect names from the bad old days of the ancien régime would be changed to good republican ones that no one would be able to find his way around the city. “If you like. The Maison-Égalité. As I was saying, what would this woman be doing there? It’s mostly high-priced luxury shops.”
“The one that are still open, anyway.”
“A woman who appears to be down on her luck and starving would scarcely go to the Palais—the Maison-Égalité to buy anything; she’d be there to sell.”
Brasseur snapped his fingers. “Offering herself to any man who’d have her. The girls, the ones who still hang about the arcades—they all know each other. They’d notice the amateurs.”
“Describe her gown to them,” Aristide said. “And don’t forget the fresh mud on her skirt. That’s more than a splatter from a passing carriage; it looks as if she had a bad fall recently. Perhaps one of the girls will remember.”
Brasseur glanced at his watch and stifled a yawn. “Well, I don’t doubt they will, but it’s far too early in the day to go looking for the whores yet. Any other ideas?”
At that moment Dr. Prunelle, the local police surgeon, hurried up. “What’s this you have for me, Commissaire?” he inquired, closing his umbrella and shaking hands with Brasseur. “The lad who fetched me said it was a beast of a case, but wouldn’t elaborate. He looked a little pale.”
“It’s a beast of a case, all right,” Brasseur said, gesturing. “See for yourself.”
“Oh,” said Prunelle, as he knelt beside the corpse. “Oh, my. Dear me. Where’s the head?”
“Your guess is as good as ours. Ever seen anything like this?”
“Oh, no. That’s to say, not as a case of murder. Of course I’ve seen more than enough decapitated corpses lately at Place de la Révolution.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a connoisseur of executions,” Aristide said. Prunelle scarcely seemed the type of citizen who had gleefully taken to attending the free entertainment of trials for counterrevolutionary activities at the Revolutionary Tribunal, and their frequent, bloody aftermath at the public scaffold.
“Hmm?” said Prunelle, without looking up from his examination of the corpse. “Oh, executions. No, I don’t attend for the sake of amusement, dear me, no. But my colleague Dr. Beaumont and I are conducting a series of experiments, you see, in order to determine whether or not execution by guillotine is as quick as we’ve been led to believe. Beaumont’s grown concerned about the question ever since the rumor began to go around that the Corday woman blushed after some brute of an assistant executioner slapped her severed head.”
“Swine,” grunted Brasseur. “Sanson sacked him, you know. And he got thirty days in lockup for it.”
“Did he?” Prunelle echoed him, peering at the stump of the neck. “Glad to hear it. So,” he continued, “from time to time, we obtain permission to stand close by and observe the corpse immediately after decapitation. Personally, I suspect the idea of Corday’s head blushing is complete nonsense. Nothing I’ve seen indicates that consciousness survives for more than a second or two after the great vessels of the neck are severed. The corpse may twitch a moment, but so does a chicken on the block. See here, for example,” he added, rising and dusting off his knees. “This unfortunate creature’s throat was cut. She would have been dead within a few seconds.”
“She didn’t die of…from…beheading?” Brasseur said.
“Oh, no. That came soon afterward. That is, I suspect the murderer caught her from behind—the angle of the cut indicates as much, assuming he’s right-handed—and slit her throat, opening the vein here, below the left ear, where the slash would have begun. I could show you, if the head were present. Much easier than attempting to hack the head off a living victim. Then, within a minute or two, I’d say, he went to work with a large, sharp knife of some kind, or a cleaver, perhaps. It wouldn’t have taken long, if he was strong and knew something of anatomy.”
“I saw a field surgeon in America take off a leg once,” said Brasseur. “Must have taken him less than a minute.”
Prunelle shook his head. “Ah, but this wasn’t done with a bone saw. I would need to dissect the cadaver to be sure, but the looks of the visible bone seem to indicate a heavy cutting blade, hacking at the vertebrae, rather than any kind of saw.”
“Brasseur estimates she was killed between dusk and midnight,” Aristide said. Prunelle nodded.
“Quite right. Soon you won’t need me at all, Commissaire! Well, is there anything else I can tell you?”
“Only if you can deduce, from looking at her corpse, who killed her,” Brasseur said, “and why, and why he hacked her head off and took it away with him.”
“That, I fear even I can’t tell you,” said Prunelle, with a hint of a smile, which he quickly suppressed. “But you’ve considered, of course, that this is the work of a madman?”
“Such men—it’s rare, but one hears rumors—such men sometimes mingle rape with murder. I shouldn’t like to make an examination here—we have to preserve the decencies, after all—but I’ll instruct the attendants at the morgue to examine her for signs of assault, if you wish.”
“I’ll tell them myself,” Aristide said. “It’s on my way home.”
“Well,” Brasseur said as Dr. Prunelle departed, “let’s get this cleared away. Didier! Bring over the litter. Careful, now, be sure she’s covered up. Nobody needs to see something like this. You, there, find a house with a well and fetch some water.”
Brasseur, Aristide knew, would have to return to his office at the nearby commissariat to write his report of the murder and the initial investigation. Aristide followed the litter-bearers out of the alley and waited while they loaded the corpse on a waiting cart, then climbed up himself beside the driver. The man was a taciturn sort, as it proved, and Aristide was in no mood for talking, so they proceeded in silence down Rue de la Loi and along the busy, noisy length of Rue Honoré to the Châtelet.