Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (Paris)
“But I am never there. I only sleep there.”
Once more Gremot had shrugged when Broughton, calling attention to his cough, asked, “You do not find the arrangement rather―to state the matter bluntly―squalid?”
In the indifferent way in which he sometimes understood English, Gremot addressed not the house but the habit: “No, monsieur, it is the healthiest thing to fill the lungs with smoke.”
So far as Broughton had observed, Gremot did not possess much in the way of a conscience. His morality was guided by a code of auspices. Should he gain entrée to the middle class, he would adopt the moral tone of the middle class. His folkloric notion of retribution, in that case, would be superseded by bourgeois social constraints, and informed by gossip.
“Gremot,” Broughton said now, “I have obtained for you new employment.”
Honoré, repeating Broughton’s “making strides” under his breath, had turned his back on the two men. For a moment he stared at the shelves, meaning by this to convey something of insult…but was distracted by a brass perpetual calendar. He took it down and cleaned it with his sleeve; becoming preoccupied, then, with the workings of the little wheel that changed the numbers, he stood flipping them over and over. Broughton and Serrigny he supposed merely chatting. But thinking he had heard his name mentioned, Honoré looked up and met Broughton’s eye.
“Monsieur Serrigny practices at law. Until lately, he had held the position of public prosecutor. Your brother, monsieur, has not been dislodged from his post?”
Serrigny laughed. He glanced at the door, as though he might be overheard. “Edmond, you know that my brother was a friend of the Emperor and that he very much disliked the Emperor. I believe he is in the same case with Monsieur Favre. But I think not even a Paris mob would dare dislodge him from his post.”
Honoré heard Mme Rose begin to sing. She had slipped into another room, and her voice came to them low and halting, among other sounds of drawers sliding and dishes clinking onto a tabletop. She broke off to clear her throat, hacking at her infirmity: “Hrrh!”
And unperturbed, where Honoré would have been embarrassed, she began to sing again.
“I know of no obstacle to beginning at once,” Broughton said. “However, Gremot has not been listening.”
“Madame Rose,” Serrigny answered him, “keeps faultless accounts.”
Broughton nodded. They agreed well, it seemed, on what they had decided.
“Come and see the room.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)