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The Cavalier of the Apocalypse: First Chapter


Monday, 31 October 1785

Aristide Ravel stumbled upon the first fire early on All Hallows’ Eve.

The rising sun at last allowed him to see his way past the gutter that ran down the center of all the streets, thick with the black slime that Parisians politely called mud—a trampled stew of horse manure, night soil, rotten rinds and parings, ashes, and every other sort of muck and filth that the inhabitants of a vast city could produce. He strode on toward the center of Paris, trying to ignore his squalid surroundings in the outskirts while anticipating, with some pleasure, the four gold louis he would receive for a handful of manuscript pages he had written for a printer-bookseller on the Quai des Augustins.

His lodgings lay, in the autumn of 1785, on the sixth floor of a dilapidated tenement at the edge of the city, not far from the prison-hospital of La Salpêtrière, which he could smell from his room whenever the wind was right, and unpleasantly close to a pair of slaughterhouses and the desolate paupers’ graveyard of Clamart, all of which he could smell all the time. To reach the printers’ district by the Seine, he had first to pick his way along the refuse-strewn cobbles on the slopes of Rue Mouffetard and the neighboring streets, past the butcher shops, abbatoirs, and tanneries that crowded the landscape and poisoned the air of the neighborhood with the vile stench of soaking hides and stale blood.

He was approaching the steep hill, avoiding the scraps of offal that littered the streets near the slaughterhouses, when a large, unruly crowd and a plume of smoke caught his attention. Made up of the usual assortment of early-rising day laborers, journeymen, fishwives, errand boys, and ragged vagrants that one encountered in the seamy faubourg St. Marcel, the crowd streamed toward the church of St. Médard.

Fifty years before, a mad sect of religious fanatics had gone into convulsions there over purported miracles. Curious, he followed them, pushing the lank dark hair that spilled to his shoulders and whipped in the breeze away from his face, and wondering if new miracles had manifested themselves. As he approached, he found the spectators equally divided between those who—eager for any free entertainment—were hooting, shouting, and stamping their feet, and others, mostly women, who were on their knees, praying and sobbing. Above them all, gray smoke drifted from the church’s porch, muddying the overcast sky above.

“What’s this all about?” Aristide asked the nearest man.

“Don’t know,” he said. “Only that there’s some ruckus at the church.”

“Somebody set a fire!” another man exclaimed, near them. “Right in the church, by the altar!”

“God save us all!” a woman wept, dropping her market basket and fervently making the sign of the cross.

“What’s the world coming to?” said another.

“You mark my words,” said the second man, “there’s something afoot. Something’s up. It’s a plot.”

“A plot to do what?” Aristide said.

“Why, to profane churches and kill Christians.”

“They can burn all the priests to cinders in their own churches, for all I care,” growled a third, a sturdy young man of twenty-five wearing stained and scarred sabots—probably a worker in one of the slaughterhouses, Aristide thought—and a laborer’s loose striped trousers and belted blouse. “Or in Hell, for that matter. What have the cassocks ever done for us in exchange for all the tithes they squeeze out of us, except feed us lies and fairy tales, and tell us how we ought to live our lives?”

“May God forgive you!” the woman with the market basket cried, crossing herself again and edging away from the blasphemer.

“Well?” demanded the young laborer, glancing truculently from side to side. “What have the damned priests and bishops done to earn their fat incomes? Don’t tell me you never saw the bishops and the cardinals swanning about in their fancy carriages with their jewels and their fancy women. They’re no more than lickspittles and courtiers. Gut them all, I say.”

“Now how can you say that,” a plump woman retorted, “when the Church does plenty of good for the poor.” She nodded in the direction of a pair of nuns who were making their way down the street, carrying a large hamper between them. “They tend the sick in the hospitals, don’t they? And many’s the fellow down on his luck, or the poor widow with hungry children, who’s gotten a hot bowl of soup and a bit of bread from the holy sisters.” The people around her nodded and muttered in agreement.

“It’s a plot, I tell you,” the second man insisted. “A plot against good Christians, to bring down the Church. They arrested Cardinal de Rohan, didn’t they?”

“The Cardinal!” the slaughterhouse worker exclaimed. “Hah! The bastard’s a lecher, a fraud, and a thief! He and his whore stole that diamond necklace, and who knows what else he was up to?”

Since August, people spoke about only one diamond necklace. The creation of the royal jewelers, worth a million and a half livres—the price of a battleship in the king’s navy—it had vanished in the most mysterious and scandalous of circumstances.

“I heard the Austrian bitch got him to steal the necklace for her by inviting him into her bed,” another man declared, with an obscene gesture, “because Fat Louis wouldn’t dip into his purse for it!”

“And we all know Louis can’t get it up anyway,” jeered another, “so she has to feed her unnatural lusts where she can—”

“Don’t you talk about the king and queen like that!” a burly fishwife snapped, and backhanded him with her basket.

“Cardinal de Rohan’s family’s the richest in the land, I hear,” the slaughterhouse worker continued, over the commotion, “and they say he doesn’t even pretend to behave like a priest should. D’you think he’s poor? A Rohan? Not likely. And if he’s chaste, then I’m a Turk. He’s got half a dozen mistresses, I hear…holds orgies, most likely, in his fancy palaces.”

“He’s still a prince of the Church!” said the second man. “Why, I think the king would have feared for his own soul, arresting a cardinal. They must have told him to do it, whoever it is has it in for the Church. And now this!” he concluded, gesturing vaguely at the thinning plume of smoke.

Aristide almost smiled, for everything he had ever heard about Louis XVI indicated that the king was deeply, genuinely, and obstinately devout. Such a man would scarcely have ordered the arrest of Cardinal de Rohan—a prince of the Holy Roman Empire and cadet of one of the most powerful families in France—two and a half months earlier, on charges of theft and lèse-majesté connected with the matter of the infamous necklace, without believing himself entirely within his rights to do so.

“You think, then,” he said, “that a fire in a church and the cardinal’s arrest are all part of the same anti-Catholic conspiracy?”

“Why not?” The man turned to scowl at Aristide from beneath heavy brows. “There are plenty of ungodly folk out there, you mark me. They want to do away with good Christians and turn us all into pagans. Jews and Protestants, and—and Mohammedans and Freemasons and Turks…and all those heathen aristos with their wicked temples and high priests of what-you-may-call-it, whatever you like. Plenty of them,” he repeated, for emphasis.

He would learn nothing more, Aristide decided, from this crowd of ignorant gawkers. Curious, he elbowed his way through to the porch. Smoke still wafted outward, though it was thinner than before. Behind him, the clustered neighborhood folk pointed and whispered, not daring to go further.

He stepped inside the church. At the far end of the nave, half a dozen figures scurried about in the dimness, the smoke obscuring the wan, pearly morning light of late autumn that was beginning to filter down from the upper windows. As he drew nearer, he could see the fire was contained in one spot, lying like a bonfire before the communion rail, merrily consuming a few kneelers.

“You!” a man cried, spotting him. “If you’re here to help us instead of to stare, go line up in back!” He pointed to the door on the north side. Aristide followed the gesture and soon found himself in a bucket line that led to a well in the corner of a narrow passage behind a row of dilapidated houses. The police maintained several crews of firefighters with pumping carts, but there was no sign of them; no doubt it would take them more time than it was worth to arrive at this remote corner of Paris.

It was over within a quarter of an hour, with little harm done; the fire had, in truth, been small enough. At last the priest appeared and announced that the fire had been quenched, thanking profusely all who had helped, as he blotted away sooty sweat with a rough handkerchief. After offering thanks and blessings all around, he retreated inside once again and Aristide discreetly followed him.

The charred, smoldering remains of the blaze still lay in the middle of the church, at the center of the two rows of classical columns that seemed strangely out of place amid the medieval stonework. As he drew closer, he could tell the sticks, tinder, and paper scraps—scavenged from the layers of advertising bills that were pasted every day on half the walls in Paris—that had made up the base of the fire had not been laid out randomly, heaped in a loose pile. Rather, the fuel had been arranged in something resembling a hollow square, or a diamond shape, with one acute angle pointing directly at the altar.

“That’s odd,” muttered a voice behind him. Aristide glanced over his shoulder to see one of his companions from the bucket line, a big, broad-shouldered man, somewhat older than he. Though grimy with dust and smoke, the man’s clothes clearly indicated that he was not one of the many day laborers, butcher’s boys, and tannery workers who populated the edge of the neighborhood; he was pulling on a frock coat that was part of the plain, neat black suit of a respectable bourgeois civil servant, much like Aristide’s, though far less shabby.


“Peculiar shape, that is.”

“Why not just heap it all together?” Aristide agreed.

“Would have been harder to light it this way, too,” the man said, musing aloud. “Easier to just make a pile and throw a little lamp oil on it. Here you’d have to pour oil all the way around.”

“Yes, I was wondering about that myself.”

“Peculiar,” he repeated. “Like perhaps he wanted to do something in the center of the square of flames.”

“Do something?” Aristide echoed him. “Do you mean, perform some outlandish ritual, or something of that sort?”

“There are some funny people about,” the big man said, without further comment. He shrugged and turned away, pulling out his watch.

Suddenly Aristide recognized him: He, and his wife and small daughter, lived in an apartment on the first floor of the house in which Aristide had lived until two months ago, when the state of his finances had obliged him to find cheaper lodgings. At the same instant, the man, too, seemed to find Aristide vaguely familiar, and looked him up and down.

“You don’t belong in this district. You’re no hide-scraper.”

“Neither are you,” said Aristide. “You’re my former neighbor, from the first floor, on Rue des Amandiers, aren’t you? Did you come this far to satisfy your curiosity?”

“I’d say I have a better reason than you do, monsieur, for being hereabout.” He reached into an inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a printed card embellished with a signature and an official-looking seal, which he briefly held up before putting it carefully away. “Inspector Brasseur, of the Eighteenth District. And you are, monsieur?”

Aristide realized suddenly that the inspector probably thought he was a fellow member of the police. The commissaires, one step below the royal lieutenant of police who was in charge of all Paris, wore official robes, caps, and wigs like magistrates; inspectors and their subordinates, however, commonly wore plain black suits, like many other civil servants.

“I’m not one of you,” he said pleasantly, extracting his identity papers from his pocket-book and handing them to Brasseur, “if that’s what you were wondering. Merely a private citizen and man of letters.”

“Man of letters, eh?” the inspector echoed him, with a dubious glance at him. The police and most respectable folk viewed authors, playwrights, and poets—unless they had found patronage and become household names—as seedy vagabonds, scarcely better than actors or streetcorner charlatans.

“A writer, monsieur, who presently can afford no better lodging than a garret at the edge of this unwholesome quarter of Paris.”

The ghost of a smile crept across Brasseur’s broad countenance. “Why the black suit, then?” he inquired. “You’re not any kind of civil servant?”

“Saints preserve me,” Aristide said, thinking of the many dull hours he had spent in his uncle’s law office before resolving to escape Bordeaux, and bitter memories, and move to Paris.

“Surely you’re not an abbé! You don’t have the look of a priest.”

“It’s the only suit I have, monsieur; black serves for all occasions.”

Brasseur nodded and said nothing, though he continued to eye Aristide appraisingly. At last he handed back the papers with a cordial word, and Aristide gratefully made himself scarce.


Sunday, 1 January 1786

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