Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (Paris second)
“Ah! Read it to me.”
Honoré saw a gilded crown cresting a letter so ornate he couldn’t guess which it was. He did not know how to interpret such things. Her frown reappeared. And then Sylvie pressed a forefinger above her nose. “I age myself, Marie, fretting over trifles. No, since I’m wrong, I will say so.”
She smiled at Mme Rose. She turned her head, and like a beacon, the warmth and charm of her smile glowed upon Honoré. “It chimes very prettily. That is why you like it. Take it to your room…I make it a gift to you!” And to Mme Rose: “If I’d thought she would be happy with fifty francs, I wouldn’t have been so sentimental. But when I told her she could have sold it for a thousand…”
“And of course I would have kept my promise to them.”
“You know that’s not true.”
Sylvie blinked; then, understanding her friend, shrugged. “I don’t say she wouldn’t have had to go among the hotels and find an American to pay so much. But that is just what she does. Jacques didn’t find it so funny…to send her after cash and get a wedding gift instead. Since he refused to speak to you about it, I said to myself, ‘Jacques has lied to his mother’.”
Mme Rose glanced at Honoré, as she had once or twice during this conversation, and spoke for her friend’s understanding. “Because you would, when they came to you and asked. I would not.”
“But the last time, when she came alone…”
Sylvie spoke to Mme Rose with a certain gentleness. “She insisted, only fifty francs.”
Honoré put the clock on the counter, careful not to allow the porcelain to strike the glass discordantly. He had felt the vibration of the chiming mechanism through his fingertips; Sylvie’s clock was preparing to sound the hour. But he’d noticed pass over Mme Rose’s face an ashen weariness. He went to her and gathered the fallen shawl. Who was she, that they spoke of? She was Anne Lugard…but in Honoré’s hearing they would not say so.
“It might have been any sum. The information was useless.” Mme Rose caught his hand and stopped him. “No, my dear, don’t bother about me.”
It was one o’clock…the chime rang and quit.
“You want to rest, Marie,” Sylvie said to her. “Your Honoré will escort me home.”
“Here you are in your room.”
She came through the door, which he did not keep shut, and in two steps, had reached the divan, where she rested, sinking prone against its cushions. Only because Mme Rose objected to his fussing over her, did Honoré keep to his chair; but after a minute’s scratching with his pen, he said, “I will bring you the counterpane.”
“No, Honoré. I am far from feeling chilled.”
“I will make coffee for you,” he suggested, still troubled by her breathing.
“You cannot in the least make coffee. Honoré, you have been visiting Sylvie, and you have been coming home in the very early hours, so that I will believe you have not.”
She knew the truth, and had not been as soundly asleep as he’d supposed; she had summed up, succinct as a prosecutor, forestalling any excuse.
She waved her hand. “That is your own affair. La penseuse, they call her. Now that she is a widow, she would like to keep a grand salon. My Sylvie has a number of acquaintances.”
“But,” he protested. She had made him feel that he ought to protest, although her words were not precisely critical. “She knows Yves Amédée. And Gérard Costa has persuaded her to help us…she will invest in the new Progressiste by subscription.”
“Thirty francs a month.”
Mme Rose pressed her lips together. Honoré, by restating it, enlarged on his point. “That is three hundred and sixty a year.”
“Pah! Sylvie has a new enthusiasm…this time, for the communists.”
If he had not known his former roommates, Honoré might have felt more respect for the city’s curfew; but he’d seen, each night, how the Garonds defied it. He had only three streets to cross to reach Sylvie’s house. He dressed himself in somber black, and carried in his pocket one from Mme Rose’s stock of apothecary bottles, filled with a dash of icing sugar. He had practiced the line he would use: “Of course, Monsieur Costa may survive an attack without his medicine.”
Honoré had even considered that Gérard looked in need of medicine, whereas Sylvie was both blooming and flirtatious. He would not have liked bringing a sergent-de-ville to her door.
Of the ways in which the army’s senior staff could be held at fault for having lost the war, Honoré and Gérard hoped to determine nine, to divide these evenly, and to make a name for the new journal with three substantial complaints per article, published in a sensational series.
“Provisioning,” Honoré read to him from their list, “use of reserves, artillery, command…you see, Gérard, as for the conduct of the generals alone, you have also: direction, example, strategy, cooperation.”
Gérard, in one of his antic moods, and pacing Sylvie’s drawing room, had shaken his head. “This is becoming too ambitious. We’ll have a dozen things before we know it…and then you will think of a dozen more. Honoré, you want to write a book.”
He had been running a hand with each pass along the gilded frame of Sylvie’s portrait, hanging between floor-length windows―a younger Sylvie rendered in the style of the notable M. Binn, posed with a dog at her feet and a lyre pressed to her heart. Gérard absently wiped his fingertips on his coat, caught himself, tugged out his lapel to check for dust, and went on. “I suppose we might write a book…but no…the publishers are in business for profit; they will say we are ordinary men, and that ordinary men know nothing of statesmanship, or matters of national defense. The bourgeois republicans are incapable of keeping order without help from the generals; yet the generals themselves are creatures of the dying aristocracy. The one class inflates the aspirations of the other. Soon enough, we will see Bazaine’s memoirs brought out…or Monsieur Gambetta’s. Fame has more power than truth.”
Gérard fished a small blue bottle from his coat pocket, uncorked it and shook three or four drops of its contents into his wine glass. He extended the glass towards Honoré, as though to confirm that, among friends, he concealed none of his propensities. He drained the glass, set it on a table; after plumping a cushion, he stretched out on the floor, resting his head on this. “But, I have opinions of my own…why should they be buried?”
Honoré sat with a decanter of wine from General Perreau’s cellar between his knees, a cigar between his knuckles. He was squeezed onto the sofa next to Sylvie; at his other side spread a stack of pamphlets, and notes that he and Gérard had been compiling. In the current climate, screeds of every hue appeared at the end of a thrusting arm, under the eyes of any person who walked the streets. In their collection were expressed the views of the government, of royalists and Bonapartists, united in one respect, that both lifted their heads to sniff at every fresh political breeze… And of Gérard’s fellow communists, whose leaders from jealousy he could not love, and whom he dismissed as “soulless anarchists, pretenders,” adding under his breath: “Well…as you know, men like Limolette.”
Though she received guests in this room, Sylvie was pleased to bustle them into armchairs; she enjoyed disorder, these evidences of her men busy at their serious endeavor―“You see what they’ve done to my house. Too impossible! I apologize, of course…but I don’t dare touch anything”.
The sofa, for the safety of its brocade, had been draped with a Persian rug, the cushions were on the floor, where Sylvie had tossed them, and where Gérard, at four in the morning, had fallen into a doze.
Honoré followed Sylvie upstairs to her room.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)