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
Family-minded bourgeois Parisians spent New Year’s Day attending Mass, exchanging gifts, and hosting convivial dinner parties. Bachelors, students, and the literary cliques, on the other hand, tended to spend the holiday in taverns or cafés, which were invariably crowded and lively with those who had not yet settled down to respectable marriages and the producing of heirs. More than that, Aristide thought, as he hurried toward the Cordeliers district with an icy wind at his back, the cafés would be far warmer than his attic room—which had no fireplace and was heated only by a small charcoal brazier—in the midst of a miserably cold winter.
He was feeling unexpectedly wealthy, having earned another ten louis for a political pamphlet, with nearly sixty livres still at his disposal after clearing up accounts with his landlord. Giving way to an extravagant impulse, he established himself, with a demitasse of strong coffee, at a corner table in the Café Zoppi, wondering if anyone he recognized might come past.
He recognized a few faces, though no one whom he knew intimately, and at last he contented himself with pulling out the manuscript upon which he was currently working, and scribbling notes to himself with a battered pencil. Around him, the coffee drinkers came and went and clustered about the tall heating stove, conversing earnestly about the sad state of literature, and the even sadder state of current affairs. Inevitably the gossip would turn to the continuing delicious scandal of what people were calling “the queen’s necklace,” though it had never, it seemed, been hers. By now the chief characters in the drama—Cardinal de Rohan; his avaricious mistress, Jeanne de la Motte; and the notorious alchemist, soothsayer, and mystic Cagliostro—were safely locked away in the Bastille, awaiting trial. Though all legal proceedings were supposed to be conducted in the greatest secrecy, leaks, from time to time, oozed from the fortress to enliven the thousands of illegal handbills, pamphlets, and satirical songs that ci rculated around the city without benefit of the censor’s stamp of approval.
“But it’s impossible to be bored in Paris,” a young man declared, some hours later, in loud, offhand tones to his companion, as they seated themselves at the table next to Aristide’s. “Can’t be done.”
Aristide cast a sideways glance at him. He wore his hair long and unpowdered, following the careless fashion of the younger generation who patronized Zoppi’s; but his clothes, well cut and crisp, betrayed him as a pampered young sprout from a comfortable bourgeois family, playing at the literary life in Paris.
Aristide glanced at his own frayed cuffs and immediately loathed him.
“There’s so much to do, so much to see,” the young man continued, for the benefit of his friend, who as clearly, by last year’s cut of his redingote, was a country cousin. “The theater, the opera, the Italian comedy…Why, even if your purse is feeling a bit light, you can get cheap tickets to seats up in Paradise and go to the theater every night if you want. Or you can buy tickets to the costume balls at the opera house and perhaps find yourself dancing with a duchess.”
“A duchess?” echoed the country cousin, impressed.
“Or a prostitute. You’ll find both there. They say even Antoinette goes sometimes.”
Aristide could have told him that the queen hadn’t been spotted at the opera balls for years; her giddy days as the spoiled, thoughtless, pleasure-seeking young princess were behind her, now she was past thirty and the mother of three children, though popular opinion was ready to believe anything of her, the more scurrilous the better. The salacious details that had been turning up in café talk and the gutter press about the necklace affair, and the queen’s alleged sexual relations with both the cardinal and the so-called Comtesse de La Motte, the adventuress behind the notorious theft, had been titillating Parisian scandalmongers for months.
He signaled to a waiter, who elbowed his way across the crowded, candlelit room toward him—insolently slowly, Aristide thought, acutely aware of his threadbare clothes.
“Another coffee.” He stifled a yawn and glanced at his watch, the only thing of value he presently owned. Twenty past eleven. “With sugar.”
Nearby a pair of earnest-looking young men were looking furtively about them as they talked, a newspaper lying forgotten on the table between them.
“You know anyone with any sense wants the Duc d’Orléans on the throne, even if it’s just as regent for the boy, but first you’d have to ensure that the king’s brothers were out of the running.”
“How do you get rid of Louis, though? Certify him as an imbecile?”
The first man smiled sourly. “Please. He’s not stupid, no matter what people say: just inept at the role he’s forced to play. I heard he has his own private library on mechanics and the sciences. Of course, it’s a tragedy of fate that he had to be a king; I expect he’d have made an excellent professor of natural philosophy instead.”
“Like Father Houdelot at school,” said the other man, grinning.
“Exactly. The woolly-headed sort of intellectual monk—”
“ ‘Monk’ is right. He must be the first king of France in about five hundred years who’s never had a mistress!”
“—not blessed with too much practical sense—”
“What does that say about him?”
“—who’s vastly knowledgeable about just one or two abstruse subjects and knows nothing at all about any others.”
“Or indeed about much of life.”
“But instead he had to be king, and concern himself with administration, power, and politics, which he obviously has no talent for, and probably detests…the duke’s far better suited to the part—”
“Lord, nearly anyone would be…”
“—Or of course you can go to the Palais-Royal,” the young man at the next table continued, raising his voice above the din.
“Oh, it’s quite new, and it’s the latest sensation! We ought to visit tomorrow. It’s part of the Duc d’Orléans’ hôtel particulier, you know, the family’s Paris mansion.”
“Orléans? The king’s cousin?”
“They say he was badly in debt by the time the old duke finally breathed his last and Philippe inherited; at any rate, he knocked down the old walls and houses about the garden—it’s immense—and he’s built new houses with covered arcades all the way around on three sides, and is collecting shop rents.”
“But he’s a prince,” protested the younger man. “A prince of the blood royal!”
“That’s what makes it so delicious. They say the king, when he heard about it, said ‘I hear, cousin, that we’ll only see you on Sundays, now you’ve turned shopkeeper.’ But that’s beside the point. The gardens are simply the latest rage. Ever hear of Vauxhall or Ranelagh in London? Well,” he continued, as his companion nodded, “it’s much the same. You can stroll through the Palais-Royal and visit a dozen different gaming houses or brothels within a hundred steps. And there are plenty of cafés and theaters and luxury shops and book stalls if your tastes are tamer,” he added, with a dismissive shrug.
“Is it expensive?”
“Well, yes, of course. It’s fashionable. But the police aren’t keeping watch over your shoulder, saying what you shouldn’t do and shouldn’t read. Orléans keeps them out—of course, someone like him can get away with doing that—because he believes people should be able to think and read as they please. If they’re reading satires about the king, at any rate!”
“Father said I wasn’t to spend all—”
“Oh, if you just want to see the sights for a fortnight, and you haven’t much money, you can admire the royal art collection—that’s at the Louvre Palace, but anyone properly dressed can get in—or the queen’s formal court gowns…”
The fellow prattled on. Aristide endeavored to ignore him and leaned on the tiny table, chin balanced on fists, drowsily surveying the room from his dim corner. Zoppi’s prices were outrageous—coffee was only two sous elsewhere, even at the Palais-Royal—but it was a good place to meet people; everyone in the lively Cordeliers district eventually turned up there. You were also paying for the privilege of drinking your coffee or hot chocolate beneath the same gilded chandeliers under which, twenty or thirty years ago, Voltaire and Diderot had once sipped theirs and discussed the philosophy of the day. Zoppi kept a bust of Voltaire on the mantel to remind his customers of this fact, although people said that when the canny Italian had bought the Café Procope and renamed it after himself, Voltaire was in no condition to visit his favorite café, having already been dead for several years.
His coffee arrived at last. He sipped it, slowly coming awake again. Coffee for wakefulness and as much sugar as you could stand for a burst of energy: that was the trick to keeping late hours. That night he had to finish copying Maître Carriau’s brief before the next morning. Only two or three hours’ work left on it, thank God!
“It’s all about privilege,” said a man to a companion as they passed and found a table. “What about the frustration of the ambitious, talented commoner who knows he’ll never rise past a certain level in the army, the government, the Church, because all the top positions are reserved for sons of the nobility—plenty of whom are brainless fops who have done nothing besides being born into the right families?”
“You sound like Figaro: ‘You took the trouble to be born and that’s all.’ ”
“Or,” continued the young man beside Aristide, raising his voice again to be heard over the increasing noise—would he never shut up, Aristide wondered—“you can visit the Place de Grève.”
“It’s the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville. But it’s what goes on there, now and then, that’s exciting.”
“Hangings?” said his companion.
“Better,” said the young man, lowering his voice. “Ever seen a murderer broken on the wheel?”
Evidently the country cousin had not, for he paled and mutely shook his head.
“Oh, then we must go, if we’re lucky enough to have a breaking while you’re here. We have one or two a year, when there’s a particularly notorious crime. Usually they hang murderers, but if it’s certain circumstances—parricide, or multiple murders—I saw Derues broken, you know, a few years ago. The poisoner. Fascinating stuff. Drama right before your eyes—the best sort of theater.”
Theater? Aristide repeated to himself as the strong coffee he had just drunk on an empty stomach abruptly nauseated him.
“Some of my friends at school once sneaked out to see a man broken,” the country cousin ventured. “They—they talked about it for weeks.”
“I’m sure they did. Much more impressive than a hanging.”
…Condemned to be taken to the scaffold, and his limbs and body there broken, and his living body shown on the wheel, staring at the heavens, for as long as it pleases God to grant him life…and the corpse burned and the ashes scattered to the winds…
Aristide could bear no more. He pushed his coffee aside half drunk, snatched up the pages of his manuscript and thrust them into his worn leather dispatch case, and launched himself across the room past laughing, chattering customers bent over newspapers, literary journals, and games of chess or dominoes.
Someone turned as he shouldered his way through a group of half a dozen men who had just entered. Aristide thought he heard his name but dismissed it as a trick of the clamor all about him, until he heard it again and abruptly paused a few steps from the back door.
“Ravel?” Someone was approaching him, impatiently pushing past the loitering newcomers. “Aristide Ravel? It is, isn’t it?”
“Derville?” Aristide said after an instant’s hesitation, suddenly recognizing him.
“Faith, I didn’t think I could have mistaken that mug of yours! It’s been years!”
They embraced, whooping. Olivier Derville looked much the same as he had when they were schoolmates, Aristide thought, somehow drawn together despite the three years’ difference in their ages: pale watery-blue eyes, sandy hair, a good-humored, sarcastic expression. His redingote, cut simply in the latest English style, hung well on his lanky frame, and the cloth was good, and looked new.
“You’re not going?” Derville said when he had stepped back and taken a look at Aristide. “No, I demand that you sit down and take something with me. What’ll it be?”
“Mocca?” Aristide said, feeling unable to consume another mouthful of Zoppi’s robust coffee.
“Mocca it is. Sit, sit.”
“What are you doing with yourself?” Aristide asked as Derville nudged another patron out of the way and seized a vacant table. “Do you live here in Paris?”
“Of course I live in Paris,” the older man said. “Where else would one live? And you?”
“Right now, in the faubourg St. Marcel,” Aristide said, grimacing. “Only temporarily, of course. Tell me, what do you do these days? Does your family still own Parnassus?”
Parnassus was a literary journal that Derville’s father, a wealthy dilettante and patron of the arts, had begun a dozen years before. Subsidized by Derville senior’s fortune, it had lasted long enough to gain several thousand subscribers and become profitable.
Derville nodded. “Yes, I’ve still got it around my neck. It’s a frightful bore. The censors have the journals tied up so tightly you can’t print anything interesting, just the muck they consider proper…poems about flowers, you know, and fawning tributes to minor royalties. Waiter! A half bottle of red over here, and a cup of mocca. I really only keep on with it to spite my uncle,” he continued. “Uncle Albert is a complete stick-in-the-mud and hates the way I run it. He thinks he could do better, of course.”
“God, I’d give my teeth to have my own paper!”
“The last time I saw you, you were a couple of years shy of getting out of St.-Barthélemy, and you were talking about taking a degree in law. Shouldn’t you be in Bordeaux in a wig and gown?”
“I preferred to come to Paris,” Aristide said. “Bordeaux finally became unbearable.”
Derville nodded, without speaking. He had known about Aristide’s family since their years together at school, where it was impossible to keep secrets. Unlike the great majority of the other boys and their parents, however, he had been broadminded enough to ignore the scandal and treat the solitary, taciturn, furiously touchy boy Aristide had been at thirteen with a certain amount of careless kindness.
“Besides,” Aristide added, “I thought there must be more to life than my uncle’s law practice.”
Derville grinned. “I don’t blame you! What about that friend of yours—Alexandre—have you seen much of him? Is he in Paris, too?”
“No, he’s still at home. Family business.” Mathieu Alexandre, his closest friend at boarding school, was the son of a wealthy merchant and shipowner, and had returned to Bordeaux to join the family firm. “He’s already married and respectably settled down.”
“While you’re living—if you can call it living—in the wilds of the faubourg St. Marcel?” Derville clucked sympathetically. “Oh, Lord, Ravel, you didn’t decide to try making your fortune in Paris as a scribbler—you haven’t become a backstreet hack, have you?”
“Well…not exactly…” He summoned a smile. “All right, then, I do write…though to pay the rent, with a background in law, frequently I do drudge-work for lawyers. Copying and clerking and such.”
“But you call yourself a writer, I suppose?”
“I think I have some talent for it,” Aristide confessed, avoiding Derville’s eyes.
“What kind of writing?” The waiter arrived and Derville poured himself a generous glass of wine while casting a cynical eye at the three men loudly discussing literature two tables away. “Please, please, please tell me you’re not a poet.”
“I do a little of everything. Poetry now and then, but mostly essays. Literary pieces.” He tried the mocca, scalded his lip, and set down the cup. “I write some satirical verse, and I’ve thought of trying a play or a novel.”
“That doesn’t pay much,” Derville said, shaking his head.
“Don’t I know it! I need a patron. You wouldn’t know of anyone, would you?”
“Sorry. The few bigwigs I know personally already have stables of writers sucking up to them. Let me read some of your pieces and I might be able to fit a few of them in Parnassus; though it’s been a bit dry lately, and I can’t pay you much. However…I do know a few people who’ll pay good money for good writing,” he added, lowering his voice, “but it won’t get you into the Mercure, and it might easily get you into trouble.”
Aristide almost smiled again, for he knew exactly what his friend meant. Half the books and journals published in France—perhaps more—were illegal, printed on miniature presses in back rooms and attics all over Paris, or smuggled over the frontier from Amsterdam and Brussels. The lesser portion that was not pornography consisted of books and seditious pamphlets mocking, criticizing, or vilifying the court, the king’s ministers, the royal family, the Church, and all the other venerable institutions of France. If you knew where to go, you could buy banned books from beneath the counter at dozens of otherwise respectable bookshops, many of them in the Palais-Royal, where—as the young man at the next table had said—the police were not allowed and the ambitious Duc d’Orléans made the rules.
“I already know a few people in that business,” Aristide said, nodding. Illegal or not, scribbling libelles, political tracts, and catchy, venomous verses set to popular tunes was a living, and he, like the duke—though for different reasons—had no great love for the king, or for France’s medieval laws.
Derville laughed. “I ought to have known you’d already be in the thick of it.” He glanced from side to side, on the lookout for anyone who might be one of the ubiquitous police spies, and continued, his voice still low in the clamor. “Do you know Joubert?”
“Ah, well, then, I’ll introduce you to one of the publishers who cranks out the most, and pays the best. Where did you say you lived?”
“Rue de la Muette, near La Salpêtrière.” Aristide scribbled down the address and Derville pocketed it before raising his glass.
“To old friends met again.”
Aristide could hardly toast him with a cup of café mocca, but he nodded in a half bow. “To old friends.” He cautiously sipped at the thick, creamy brew and looked his friend over. He wore two gold watches, the new fashion. “Despite your complaints about Parnassus, you can’t be doing too badly.”
“Oh, I’m not! The thing always sells at least well enough to break even. The rubbish in it, however, is worse than it was when Voltaire enraged my dear late papa by calling it the literary equivalent of fertilizer: material that may someday produce something of value, but which is, at present, composed mostly of horse manure.” He raised his glass in an ironic salute to the bust above the fireplace.
“Don’t complain; at least you make a decent living from it.” Aristide finished the mocca and rose to his feet, apologetic. “I have to go and finish copying a brief by eight tomorrow morning, or a certain lawyer will have my skin. But if you could talk me up to any of the publishers you know…”
“I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile, come and dine sometime,” Derville suggested. “The house at the sign of the scissors, Rue des Bons Enfants, just around the corner from the Palais-Royal. Second floor. Tomorrow—no, that’s no good. Sunday, Monday…Tuesday? We’ll make a day of it. Come by my lodgings on Tuesday morning and we’ll visit the shopping arcades. I’ll introduce you to Joubert, and we’ll have dinner—on me, of course—and if we’ve time later, we’ll walk a bit in the gardens, and make eyes at the pretty girls. What do you say?”
“All right.” Aristide suddenly smiled. “Faith, it’s good to see you again, Derville.”
Monday, 2 January
There had to be something wrong, Aristide thought sourly for the hundredth time, with a kingdom that enriched courtiers, merchants, and money-grubbers, and let writers and artists starve in the streets.
He shivered and stared into the dark corners of his garret room, lit by a single stinking tallow candle that assaulted his senses with the odor of rancid grease. Encountering Derville had not, he admitted, done much good for his general mood. He still liked him—it was impossible to really dislike Derville, after all—but meeting him after the passage of ten years or more had reminded Aristide just how much Derville’s nonchalant arrogance and casual condescension could irritate him. Above all, he thought, it was the simple fact that everything seemed to have come to the man so easily: his family fortune, his literary career, his connections.
Derville had been born to money, and had inherited his father’s bourgeois fortune, his father’s friends, and his father’s journal without having to lift a finger for them. Could such a man ever understand what it was like to be poor, shabby, and unconnected, to wait hungrily at the gates of literary success with a thousand others all fighting to pass through, and know you had nothing, beyond your own talent, to give you the tiniest advantage in that merciless battle for patronage, recognition, and celebrity?
He moved the candle closer, squinting in the gloom and wishing he could afford to burn more than one at a time.
God, how I hate this life.
Living in freezing, tatty furnished rooms, taking your meals from food stalls or peddlers on the street and at dirty chophouses among a lot of rough workmen, scrounging drinks from friends whom you knew you couldn’t repay because you owed three months’ rent to your bloodsucking landlord. Cracked plaster, dirty bed linens, rats in the walls, ice in the washbasin, fetid outdoor privies—and you’d have to tend to your own chamber pot if you preferred not to hurry down six flights of stairs at midnight—and it all cost two or three times what it would have cost anywhere else in France. And scribblers in the provinces sighed and wished they were in Paris, like you, living the literary high life!
But would you give it up to go home forever to Bordeaux?
A comfortable situation…was it worth the boredom, the stifling dullness of a provincial lawyer’s life?
Pleading for some crofter whose neighbor’s pigs had broken his fence down and devastated his garden, or taking a side in a petty and spiteful boundary dispute that had gone on for six generations between a couple of penniless country squires—by God, no, he couldn’t!
He took a swallow of the watered, vinegary red wine before him, making a face, and read through the poem he had just completed as he flexed his fingers to warm them. Perhaps, he admitted reluctantly to himself, he wasn’t quite meant to be a serious poet. Prose and satirical verses flew from his pen speedily enough, while he struggled over each line whenever he attempted poetry. But his essays and satires always seemed to end as biting indictments of the way France was mismanaged, and such commentary, no matter how clever and graceful, was destined only for illegal books and, if he was unlucky, the royal censor’s bonfire, lit by the public executioner.
Perhaps he would try a play; though probably, he thought with a grimace, he would end by writing something as inflammatory as Figaro’s Wedding and the censor would ban it before it ever reached the stage. Hell, he said to himself, you might as well just give up serious literature and poetry altogether, and commit yourself to a career of writing trash, producing reams of cheap satirical hackwork and savage libels, and always keeping one step ahead of the police…
He sighed. No doubt he would think of something better in the morning.
The attic room was icy. He tried rubbing his hands together over the candle’s flame, thinking of his aunt’s warm kitchen. Stew bubbling in a big iron pot, or a goose turning on the spit—oh, hell, and all he’d had for supper was a dish of bean soup and a mouthful of bread and cheese at a cheap eating-house!
The commotion in the street outside shook him from his gloomy reverie. The bells of a nearby church began to sound—what would it be now? Two in the morning? But the peals were quick and sharp, not the measured tolling of the hours. Curious, he dragged a stool beneath the skylight that served as his window, climbed upon it, hauled open the casement—it was nearly as cold inside as out, anyhow—and leaned out. Though the sloping roof obscured his view of the street, the moon gave a little light and he could just see a handful of dark figures hurrying past, toward Clamart. He caught the word “fire” amid the shouts and realized that what he heard must be alarm bells.
First St. Médard, now the paupers’ graveyard. Was it some madman, intent on setting fires, who had found that churches and cemeteries provided ideal concealment? Or, as the suspicious man outside St. Médard had said, back in October, was it something deeper and darker, a conspiracy against the Church?
Aristide sighed. Going against the Church was a dangerous business; twenty years ago, or less, you could have been beheaded, like the Chevalier de La Barre, or even burned alive, for putting a toe out of line and denying its authority. Casual talk in cafés and on street corners, even within earshot of the ever-present, ever-vigilant police spies, was one thing, usually dismissed with a warning and an offhand reference to the Bastille, but a material act of defiance was quite another.
He thought briefly of descending the six flights of stairs and joining those who were on their way to fight the fire, but decided against it as he lost his balance and nearly fell off the stool while trying to stifle an enormous yawn. If the blaze was like the one at St. Médard, then they would soon have it in hand, with little harm done.
Get to bed, he told himself, and don’t waste the candle; you can’t afford it.
God, what a life.
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