A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Honoré had composed what he felt was a rather poetic, stirring appeal to his readers. As yet, he must envision his readers. They might be refugees from the Paris suburbs; they might be soldiers of the national guard; they might be starving malcontents of the tenements―his neighbors, sleeping, as Honoré did, in shared beds, in unheated rooms.
But (though Broughton believed so), this poverty did not represent an excess of frugality. Honoré despised frugality.
“Pride is not bread,” as his friend Garond put it. The war would soon wind down, as everyone knew it must, to an unhappy end. One day Honoré would publish a Paris edition of the Progressiste. He would use money of his own, and Broughton would have nothing to say about it. At present, his medium was the placard, censored as it were organically, by lack of paper and ink. At this thought, he laid his cigar across the top of an empty ink pot, and said to Broughton, “Tell me if you like this very much.”
“I’m certain I shall, however…” Broughton stopped to write a line. He read it over. He remarked, “It’s a pity we can’t find anything to burn.”
“But you may sit on the floor. You can burn your chair only once. Then there is not much help.”
“I have thought of it, lately…and come to the same conclusion. It will be a long winter. We must not be rash.”
Honoré took up the scrap on which he’d written his preamble. He scrutinized the small map he’d drawn for himself in the margin (streets safe for trafficking about changing from day to day.) He had an afternoon on the stump ahead, his rounds to make among the cafés; a heartening number of which still scraped together a menu―of some species―to offer their customers. He did not mind the gendarmerie. Should he be arrested for speaking in public, he would have a great deal to say. But here, in Broughton’s place of business, they spoke only of quotidian affairs. Honoré was certain the greater portion of the papers he handed out to all comers were burned at once.
“I am reading to you,” he informed Broughton.
“No, not yet, please. I ought to finish this thing for Tweedloe. He inquires, by the way, after your health.”
Ruminative, Honoré touched his tongue to his broken tooth, and supposed he might see a dentist…but he would spend his money on many comforts first. He had never liked dentists; he’d had enough of doctors, and would not use money acquired by good fortune for things associated with illness and sorrow.
“Monsieur Tweedloe thinks he will not be paid. I have a plan, you may tell him so.”
“I see no reason to answer a civility with a threat. I will put down that you appear quite yourself.”
Broughton huddled into his coat. He wrote with care and constraint, wasting nothing.
Continued from “wasting nothing”
Honoré had begged the officer to look at his proofs of identity. These were a letter of introduction, drafted by a friend, and a safe-conduct of sorts, which testified to the trustworthiness of the bearer—and was punctuated with a number of impeccable names. The Minister of War had signed this, Count Palikao’s signature followed by that of M. Pietri, the Paris prefect of police, a General Schmitz (no less an officer than M. Trochu’s chief of staff), an uncelebrated colonel, also a prominent banker. At a jaunty angle, seals both purple and red were affixed.
Honoré ought to have discarded this, and its unwieldy bulk, long since, but had not been wholly convinced he would never find a use for it. As Gérard Costa had argued, how would Prussians know good from bad? Yet, faced with an actual Prussian officer, Honoré felt that he would know.
And of real proofs, he had none. He had crossed into France without passport or visa. He kept his legitimate employer’s card (M. Amédée, however, could not be appealed to; he would say that Honoré, by coming to this place, had violated their agreement), inside the folded letters, buttoned into his waistcoat lining, to be produced when the matter was non-negotiable. Authority might commandeer these things, worthless to it…while M. Sarrazin’s letter in particular―surprised as he would be to learn he’d written it―gave Honoré a name, and a home.
Seeing Baum’s murderous look, Honoré had pleaded, urgently, and without pride, “Monsieur le capitaine, I am Belgian, neutral! You cannot make a prisoner of me!” To which the officer replied, “You are not a prisoner. Still you must be held until your claims are proved.”
If being held in a prison camp, among prisoners of war, was distinct from being considered a prisoner of war, Honoré missed the logic. Frantic, he began unfastening buttons. The officer narrowed his eyes…and Honoré recognized his mistake. Holding out his hands, then, in an open, unthreatening gesture, he added, “Monsieur, I am a correspondent. I have come only to report the war…monsieur, I was born in Huy, I will answer anything!”
But the officer shook his head, refusing. “A soldier can discard his uniform. Anyone might have papers. Look around you. See the dead in the street. If you are known here, someone may come forward. Otherwise, you must go with the others.”
Honoré looked for La Roche. Beyond the least acquaintance, the curé did not know him, and might reasonably decline to vouch for him, but La Roche had been kind. And Honoré had no other hope. He looked, and the watchers’ faces were unfamiliar. He did not see La Roche, or the Paquettes. The officer sent him away, with that proverb of tyranny, “If you have committed no offense, you will have nothing to fear.”
A pail was passed among the prisoners, some having the strength to lift it above their heads and drink from the rim, wasting the good that slopped their shirtfronts. Honoré needed to squat, and with his hands scoop water into his mouth. He had missed the scraps of bread, that like scratching chickens the men competed for, tossed by the townspeople over the guard’s cordon. Yet, for all the excited speech that had followed this happenstance provisioning, for all the jangling of harness and stamping of hooves, and the forays of the mounted guards as they began to drive the prisoners into rough ranks, Honoré found himself waiting once more. He had been pulled to his feet, gripped by the collar-band of his shirt and held, the heels of his shoes not quite touching earth, while another prisoner crouched in front of him and scuttled away with the pail. Released, he staggered, choking, caught his balance, and hugged his arms to his chest, nervous of both the guards and his fellow prisoners. For a long space nothing further occurred. With a strange clarity, he could see the sweep of a second hand inside the face of a watch.
He knew it for illusion. But he began, at every fifteenth beat, to edge one step apart from the others. He bent his knees just a bit, making ready to spring, once his own lagging pace had caused a gap in the line―
The vision shattered, as the butt of a carbine came down on his shoulder, his startled cry drowned by shouts ringing over the prisoner’s heads. He heard a voice spitting a complicated insult, encompassing whoredom and illegitimacy…and somehow, espionage; at the same time, he received a rough shove, not from a guard, but from a woman whose wild face, all mouth and chin, seemed to loom at him from the street. He felt his sleeve seized and nails dig his arm as though she would not let him go. But a wave of momentum, carrying from whatever place the first of the men had been commanded forward, lurched down the ranks. Honoré, and those nearest him, began at a shuffling pace to creep ahead. A guard shouted, “Madame! Allez!”―and the woman became inexorably detached.
They broke from rubble, and from the chaotic milling crowd, onto open road; at once the prisoners were commanded to halt, the line dissolved, the men were herded by the guards, riding in relays up and down the verge, into closer formation. Honoré found himself two from the left, of four; then third in a row of six, of a column with no end in sight. He heard a funereal drumbeat.
A voice repeated this next directive; another prisoner, but whether alongside or in front of him, Honoré could not tell, mumbled and laughed, for a second time, for a third time, “Eyes ahead.”
He could not have held long to a marching cadence, but Honoré found his lungs not much challenged by this plodding. Often, he heard the call to halt bellowed from guard to guard, while his row, by the time they received the command, had been for some minutes at a standstill.
A pace, he had once learned―a single step―was somewhat less than a meter; two steps somewhat more than a meter and a half; four, then, about three meters. Probably, his steps were too small to be counted in that way. Hemmed in by others, and keeping his eyes ahead, Honoré had no distinct impression of his surroundings. But he thought a man like his father, wishing always to put time to responsible use, would count paces grimly and stubbornly, would tell himself, after an hour had passed, “I have walked a thousand meters!”; after the next hour―“I have walked two thousand meters!” Honoré supposed twice two hours would not carry him so far at this present rate; further, he could not impose such self-discipline, to count, and count, and count…but his father, he believed, would have done so.
They would let him send a telegram. Could there be any reason they would not? Only because he did not belong to the French, and his own government was not required to pay for the conditions of his imprisonment. Honoré defended himself, arguing his harmlessness before a harsh prison camp commandant.
But…yes, I can prove anything, if you will let me send to my friend Gilbert―
Yet was there, he wondered, a sort of ransom to be paid? Still, it must be Gilbert. His father would tear the telegram in half. He would say his son deserved this lesson.
The French authorities, the commandant seemed to hint, are likely to make certain representations―
But what have I stolen, or what law have I broken?
Mme Masle. She had not been happy with what she’d got, but she had not demanded more. Perhaps, like Colonel Aubermont, she had put Honoré’s description about. He had put himself at odds with the army. He had provoked Dupuy. On the principle that an angry man will sometimes exceed his discretion, Honoré had done so with a will, risking all for an exclusive story, not guessing that the school of experience had in store for him such a bounty of exclusives. He had hoped, merely, to please Tweedloe.
He thought that he was not yet earning Tweedloe’s shilling, but that he had been expected to work off the advance on his wages, and although he’d posted a letter (which would be eyed by the censor, and could say no more than they’d agreed), this first effort would not count. Until they could speak face to face, he could give no news to Tweedloe; without intending it, he’d given his notes to Paquette, and had seen Paquette’s cottage reduced to ash.
And if he were accused of skipping his fare to Verdun…well, he had paid more than the nominal fare to Reims, to be waived in among the privileged class, men who traveled under the protection of their employers, and could afford to take this freedom of mobility for granted. Honoré had paid a bribe and given away his watch; he had gone without breakfast and lunch, and all these sacrifices were the ordinary affairs of a poor man, for whom, in an inconvenient world, there could be no particular inconvenience, only everyday choice―to pay for the one thing and to do without the other.
But to be called guilty of some offense, even so…an innkeeper, still more a railway company, could scarcely feel the loss…a handful of francs, nothing to them. As the bourgeoisie had it, they could not afford to excuse everyone; therefore, they excused no one. Yet if Honoré were jailed for theft, what a price he would himself pay! It would cost his livelihood. Rather, he might, because he was a prisoner, but of war, use this chance. The thought was striking.
His eyes had been fixed on the back of the man ahead of him, but his mind had carried him far away. He woke to the odd impression of fire burning his temple and cheek, while at the same time his feet were numb…not, he thought, from cold, only fatigue; and at once, the flame of the setting sun went out. They had passed within the shadow of a vast building, its chimneys rising a story above the roof, and so many windows breaking its façade that although the factory stood between the road and the river, through these he could see a glassy copper light reflected on its waters.
An hour or two later, darkness was complete, yet not entire; lamps had been hung around the factory yard, where hundreds of men lay on the ground, rolled in blankets, resting heads on their knapsacks, packed so tight there was no room to step among them. Lamps hung as well on either side of the door past which Honoré’s group slowly filed. On a black hillside, where the Prussian army bivouacked, watch fires burned, or…if the camp were French, its closeness must be a mirage. A sullen light that swelled and dimmed like a guttering candle edged the horizon as Honoré looked back the way he’d come.
The queue advanced, one period of immobility alternating with another of rapid gain, and Honoré at length came near enough its head to learn the cause of these fits and starts. The men were being counted off and directed, some dozens at a time, into the overcrowded yard, but a few―commissioned officers distinguished by their uniforms, citizen-volunteers (otherwise, hostile combatants)―were taken aside and asked to give their names.
A guard patted Honoré down. The papers crackled in his waistcoat lining. He was asked to remove the garment, the guard satisfying himself by crushing and wringing it, that Honoré hid nothing more.
In a pool of light sat an officer, writing in a book on a table in front of him, an adjutant standing at attention behind him, another officer perched close by on a wooden chair, this cocked against the factory’s outer wall. The arches of his feet gone, Honoré scooted one after another, fastening buttons, while the guard handed his papers to the seated man, who, with a great lack of interest, glanced at them, and pushed them to the table’s edge.
“Give me your name and your rank, tell me who is your commanding officer, and what is your company.”
His pencil was poised. Honoré said: “No, monsieur, I am not a soldier. I was told I would be free as soon as I had shown my papers.”
This was a loose interpretation of monsieur le capitaine’s words, but since he could understand none of what was happening, Honoré might misunderstand one thing as readily the next.
“Tell me…” The officer bent over his writing, which Honoré guessed, with a sigh at the routine’s familiarity, to be a description of his appearance.
The officer did not look up. “Your name?”
Honoré spelled his name.
He hesitated, and the officer raised his head this time, pushed up his lower lip and stared. He found liars tedious, so his expression and his silent regard implied. But the pause had been only deliberation. Might not some age other than his own, Honoré had asked himself, improve his chance of immediate release? He decided that, on the contrary, he must be known to be found.
“Twenty,” he said. “You understand…I will be―in so few weeks that it makes no difference; but, if my father were to…”
“And what is your father’s name?”
He slept more soundly and more suddenly than he would have thought possible.
His supper had been only a watered-down broth, cold, onion-flavored, if flavored at all, passed to him in a tin cup; and into which he’d stuffed a dry bit of bread, making of it a drinkable sodden pudding.
Half-nauseated, half-famished, Honoré had felt his stomach protest while he stood wrapped in a donated blanket that smelled like a corpse, and bided his time. He had at last lain down, having made a place for himself by tentative, diffident advances with his feet, and then his knees, finally his shoulders and his back, to widen, wedge into and claim, a gap between two other of the prisoners, who, like most―Honoré did not know why—would not speak to him, and seemed blind to his presence.
He understood now, that the roof over his head was not a distinction, a thing that marked him out from those prisoners in the yard, acknowledging that his was a special case. Simply, the time for deciding and disposing had run out. The remnants of the long line of prisoners had been ordered indoors a short time after Honoré himself reached the upper floor, and was permitted to share, luckily or unluckily, an officer’s ration.
Fulner disappointed him, ignoring him in this way, when he might for charity’s sake have tried to help―
And it was to a nagging sense of disbelief that, without coming fully awake, Honoré regained consciousness enough to ask himself, how could it be Fulner?
“Even battle must end at nightfall. And further, sorting them now would be impractical. But of course, there are camps for the officers, and there are camps for enlisted men and conscripts. Not that we don’t expect to be accused of every barbarity. In time, when we have obtained an armistice…”
“You have no doubt of that?”
“I say, in time. Then, of course, the flag of Geneva will come down, and everything will be restored as it once was…where else will reparations come from? No, we will like to see the French industrious. But, those who ask for a privilege and understand that they have been given it, have a better appreciation than those who make demands, reasoning to themselves that we are in a contest, and that there is some prize to be won.”
“But you figure the fighting may be close by tomorrow…”
“Well. More soldiers of the Emperor’s army have surrendered to us than we had expected. We have made the best accommodation possible. If by this you ask, are we in range of the French batteries, and will they have the sense not to shell their own men…?”
Fulner’s informant let his question die, and answered it himself with a laugh. Honoré, alert now, and surely able…in a moment…to force his eyes open, to push himself to his feet and to signal with his hand, would be recognized by Fulner, who was his friend, and would speak for him.
The sergeant, his uniform clean, his hands gloved, his French limited, instructed by gesture. To hurry the prisoners at their work, he bounced his rifle butt against his palm, and to himself, muttered, “Das sind eure Toten.”
Divorced from its indecent particulars, the work was simple in concept, its elemental tasks easily conveyed. The prisoners discerned that one man must take the shoulders, one the ankles. They must unearth these half-sunk dead, and heave them onto wagons for disposal, or from this field of carnage malignancy would rise. Able-bodied men had been mustered into gangs, each of a few dozen, and here the French prisoners were tasked with the tending of their fallen. His vigilant companion, the moblot who had made himself Honoré’s guardian, had volunteered them both; he had grinned away the question of his little friend’s fitness for labor.
“No, my Honoré will be very sorry not to have done his part…and he is safest of all with me.” Demonstrating that Honoré could stand on his feet, the moblot had unrolled him from his blanket, taken him under the armpits, and hauled him upright. Honoré thought he had walked some distance to reach this place, and remembered almost nothing of it.
He stood pelted by rain. His filthy person and clothes seemed to issue an individual odor, admixed with some quality of the blanket that, after spending three nights and two days cocooned in it, he had drawn into his skin. The rain softened, dissolved and mingled soil with humanity; the bodies, mangled by shell fragments, did not always come away whole. Ligaments severed, arms and legs, bound in mud, remained. At each disturbance a stench rose, too painful to breathe…and yet there was a worse smell than this, one that burst with a gaseous squelch as each corpse landed on the disordered pile.
Honoré, who had done little work, and this slowly, stumbled, weakened by the weight…and could lift no more. The soldier he crouched over was a staring effigy. His partner had, without ceremony, jerked the body free. The head lolled; the darkened pupils, flecked with grit, seemed, in a hallucinatory instant, to lock onto Honoré’s. He started and toppled back, casting about for something to cover the face. Émile Baum took him by the arm, and with this help Honoré was able to stand.
He disliked thanking Baum, whose laugh he’d heard a moment earlier, but on a cough, allowed, “Merci, monsieur”.
Baum said nothing. He placed his foot over Honoré’s and yanked the arm that his hand still gripped. Honoré fell to his knees.
“You would like to have a coat, no doubt,” Baum said. He had kept watch over Honoré all morning, moving close at his back, so that Honoré could scarcely turn without colliding against him; and on these occasions, Baum cursed angrily, punched Honoré and pushed him. Now, Baum exchanged a glance with the other prisoner, and in the act of bending to grasp the dead man’s tunic, put the flat of his palm between Honoré’s shoulder blades, bearing down until, hands sunk in mud to the wrists, only the resistance of splayed fingers kept Honoré’s face above the mire.
“You might find one. You might find a watch or a pocketbook. The guards cannot see everything at once.”
Two days ago he’d woken, not to orders or to rumors, but forced to his feet by a general rising. He’d clutched his blanket, making of it a cloak about his shoulders, holding folds of it tight in his fists, and got up because the others did…he would be trampled by this mass of men, if he did not move in sync with them. Already, Honoré had grown used to the strange gait of the prisoners’ march, the jerking small steps, the balancing on the balls of his feet. At the cusp of sunrise, he passed from the factory’s sheltering roof, and entered the yard, finding himself herded, moving, as it seemed, by centimeters, until—unable to see anything, he could not guess why—the pace began to quicken.
The sun now burned, dissipating fog, exposing a yellow morning. He was on a road that ran behind the factory; a road that descended to a viaduct, an arched stone bridge that crossed a stream…a stream, Honoré supposed, that must feed the river. Following this journey to the latrine, the number of men driven onwards, their line diminishing at the road’s crest to a thin ribbon with a center of red, seemed no less than of those coming out. Honoré expected he also would be marched ahead to some depot where prisoners were loaded onto railcars; and that it might be days yet before anyone would hear his story.
But he was sent back to the yard. Rather than disperse, the returning men seemed to file into a queue that hugged the factory wall, a queue rough in distribution, compressed from its leading end, so that where it widened, as many as a hundred stragglers found themselves pushed further back. Without knowing what benefit lay ahead, Honoré kept pace with the others, but feared this reverse progress would carry him to last place. Guns began to boom, and popping like a string of firecrackers came an answer from some distant redoubt. Next resounded a salvo so close that Honoré was put in mind of the warning voiced in his dream.
No, he answered his own question of the night, the American could not have been Fulner. But, as for the words themselves, they had surely been real. Can a sleeper dream of knowledge he does not possess?
And if a shell exploded in their midst―the prisoners bunched here in their hundreds―every metal fragment must eviscerate and maul. He had hardly room to fling off his burning blanket; here where he stood he would be consumed. Honoré was burning now, and running with sweat…but came awake and saw a white tent pitched near a grillwork gate, a sentry posted on the outside.
And so, they had been locked in. The wall, where it divided the factory yard from the street, was too tall to scale. The prisoners would soon begin to riot in panic, the weak ground to sausage at the bottom of the heap; the strong would climb their bodies to escape as though the dead and the near dead had become a hill of earth to be mounted―
The scene, though so vivid, could not be sustained. Honoré felt his chest crushed, felt himself dying at the bottom of the pile; at the same time, his face was pressed against cold brick, and he sought a handhold, trying to drag himself over the wall. A stranger caught him round the shoulders, and shook him. He opened his eyes. He was not this bearded moblot’s mascot, yet the predatory beam of the smile held Honoré transfixed. It was the habit of his mind, in illness, to generate phantasms. Émile Baum now handed him a tin cup. He forced himself not to permit these wanderings, as he slid between the two men towards the guards’ post, from which the smell of coffee and bacon, which now and then had fingered its way above the general miasma of open wounds, excrement, vomit, and unwashed men, raised hopes. But there were no rations for prisoners. The guards’ breakfast table was only a part of their small camp…the tent, the table and chairs, the coffee pot hanging over the fire, grins on their faces as they talked over some telegrams, sipped from their cups and smoked.
All this, as though they sat at a café table on the edge of a quiet lake. And the queue had been like an eddy in some sluggish body of water, making a persistent pattern within the wider millings of the prisoners, packed so tight that every shift of position multiplied itself. The pattern had seemed to have meaning, and had none.
Outside the gate, he could see the cobbled street rise to a square; beyond this, it pitched up sharply, before a row of houses with roofs like stair steps. These sat left. They had been at the right…he had come down that way, and had seen enough through the corner of his eye to recall it…but what town was this?
Baum, had proved to be among the realities. Baum and his friend, who that day continued holding Honoré’s arm, and who had said to him, “Émile tells me that your name is Honoré. I will give you my own bread, because you must be very hungry.”
Indifferent to the dead man’s stare, Baum and the other prisoner swung the corpse, Baum in treading backwards, crowding Honoré. Though rain-soaked, and in shirtsleeves, he was not cold. A coat added to his costume would have been misery. The point came belatedly to Honoré’s mind, and he could hear Baum’s retort:
“You would not steal that, a coat. Then you mean to say, if you had found a thing you wanted, you would have taken it.”
Distant from where the prisoners labored, pyres burned; periodically a wave of heat, undamped by rain, or rather, carrying with it an odor made more fulsome by the saturated air, more infused with the acrid oiliness of the crematory, rolled across the field. Yet trenches of fire might be filled with the dead, and still there would be more to be rid of. Honoré’s spiritual compass foundered in degradation. He was sick, yet hungrier than he had ever thought possible. His person was steeped, encrusted, in mud and human decay…and yet, had he been given a crust of bread, he would have devoured it, holding it fast in his filthy hands. Rather than one driving away the other, his torments co-existed.
His companion had been notably silent.
Now he spoke to Baum:
“Well, I have kept an eye on our thief. I will swear to his honest conduct…so far.” He laughed, without humor. “Still, he doesn’t do his share of the work, and that is a bad thing.”
This moblot, perhaps because of the uniform he wore, had been enlisted by Baum as an ally. Honoré could see the way of it. Baum had an oblique habit of speech. He’d seen promise in this man, who had battle-hardened eyes, and the strength to labor unflaggingly. Baum had sidled up, his talk had seemed inconsequential―a story, no more―but the soldier guessed his meaning. Seeing Honoré, Baum had signaled with a nod. That they might come to such an understanding was not much; it was a commonplace, a sentiment reflecting a passion easily stirred, this belief. A traitor must be killed. Honoré had never belonged to Baum and Paquette, and never could, therefore, have betrayed them…but that was his own argument, and he would not be given the chance to make it.
Straining with the last of his strength, he got to his feet. He found his back to the wagon, himself at the point of a triangle. Baum and the moblot had placed themselves at the triangle’s other corners. The attack’s imminence, his danger, Honoré had realized only a moment ago. Now, he stepped in the snare.
Baum lunged. As they’d expected, Honoré turned in Baum’s direction. The moblot seized him from behind and pinned his arms, heaved him against the side of the wagon. His cheek and temple struck the wood frame, his ears rang with the report of it. He gagged on the fragment of a tooth, washed down in blood. He sank, but was buoyed up for the benefit of Baum’s ferocity. The moblot had him just above the elbows, twisting his right arm so tight behind his back that he could not close his hand into a fist…if, at that point, he’d possessed any power of resistance. Baum, knowing time was short, clasped both hands together and swung with doubled force.
The guards put a stop to it. They had a remorseless way with troublemakers. Rebellion might spread in a prison camp, where a fight drew off authority’s attention. He heard gunshots. The moblot’s hands were wrested away. Unsupported, Honoré landed, his face punched above the mud by that of a corpse.
No more, no more, he thought. Leave me, don’t touch me.
An interval passed, which Honoré could not account for; during this time he had been moved. He woke to a sudden draft, and could not see. A light came towards him. He perceived only the casting aside of shadow, and a red pulsation. Whoever held the light had withdrawn it, and Honoré could smell the smoking oil well up, then dissipate. His right arm seemed immobile; he threw his left fist at the man who prodded the bones of his face.
“Monsieur Bellet.” The words were quick and professional, the voice weary, belonging to a man past middle age. In naming his assistant, he had conveyed some order the assistant understood.
“No,” the doctor said. “Not yet.”
Honoré vomited the blood he had swallowed.
“Now wait, Monsieur Bellet. We will see more of this.”
They waited. At length, Honoré gasped, “Merciful God!” His retching had run him through with shocks of pain―from everywhere, it seemed. He was quivering. He tried to hold his limbs taut.
The doctor resumed his work. “Monsieur Bellet,” he said again. To Honoré, he said, “I am going to clean away this dried blood from your nose. You will not like it. But you will breathe more easily.” It was Bellet, Honoré assumed, who took him by the left wrist. He struggled in any case.
“Madame Niemann, who keeps a lodging house in Schaerbeek, on the rue de Brabant…” It seemed to Honoré that he had been having this conversation. He had been arguing with someone, insisting he could prove his identity. They must let him go. His father had told him, it was true, that should he be arrested, there would be no help. But he knew of others…
“Merciful God, why won’t they help?” He felt that something in his mind had become unhinged and he could not stop these words.
“Are you Belgian?” the doctor asked. “Monsieur Bellet, note that down. Will you tell me your name?”
“Why won’t they let me go?”
“Will you tell me your name?”
“Please, monsieur, my name is Honoré Gremot.”
“Monsieur Bellet, note that down.”
The other man spoke. Honoré could not understand him. “Well of course,” the doctor said, “they won’t put that information about. I cannot think that many answer to the description. Insofar, as this one answers to a description.”
His voice had been distant. He must have stood, taken his assistant aside, to make his grim joke. Now, Honoré heard the rustling of fabric, the grunt and labored breathing of a man kneeling with effort. He felt his right shoulder being manipulated. The effect was agonizing. Bellet resumed his restraining hand.
“Will they let me go?” Honoré repeated. He said this again, two or three times, raw in the throat.
Continued from “raw in the throat”
“Quiet,” the doctor said. “You will tax yourself with this nonsense. I have nothing to give you. I am sorry for that.”
The doctor and his assistant spoke to each other, and Bellet’s voice continued hushed; possibly he whispered in reverence of the doctor’s authority, possibly in courtesy to the wounded. Honoré could hear the rhythmic knock of a boot heel pounding the floor, and sobbing, another man’s tiresome maunderings…one who shouted filthy obscenities, fell silent, began again.
On the march to his imprisonment, he had seen houses flying the Red Cross flag…these were makeshift hospitals. He might have been taken to such a house. How could he tell? He had been given a blanket. He perceived, with his fingertips, a line of demarcation, where coarse woolen fibers gave way to cold boards. He supposed that he lay on some sort of rug.
“The prospects for this one are no better than the others,” the doctor answered Bellet. “He has the fever already.”
“I don’t,” Honoré said.
“I can’t see why you should deny it. What do you know?”
“I am not going to die.”
“That is as God wills it,” the doctor said.
“You know me,” the man who had woken Honoré told him. “I am Pierre Bellet. They would like you to walk, only a short distance. You must go with these men. I myself still assist monsieur le docteur.”
His friend Bellet was his usual visitor. At most times Honoré lay unattended, and when he had these chances, he spoke in earnest anxiety…and thought his words were lucid. They had sounded at first, to his own ears, slurred and confused. He told Bellet he could not sleep for pain and sickness.
“No, not for days, I think…I am very tired, monsieur.”
“I hope, then, that you have at least been able to rest. You were resting soundly last evening, when I visited, and I did not seem to have disturbed you. However…”
In this house, Bellet, as it seemed, had taken on most of the chores; his ways were thorough and painstaking, and for a man of his conscience, the mild joke had been a departure, an indiscretion he seemed at once to regret. “I would bring you brandy, Honoré, if I were able to lay hands on it, but I have nothing.” Something in Bellet’s voice suggested that these words, echoing the doctor’s, had been spoken with a shrug. “We are surrounded, and have no place to send to.”
Honoré envisioned himself a small candle flame burning in a dank catacomb, shuddered by subterranean echoes. Bellet dabbed at his face with a damp cloth, and tried to feed him; but Honoré wished only to lie still, utterly still. “Will the trains be running? I have no money. But, Monsieur Bellet, if they have posted my letters…” He believed he had been busy about this work, writing to everyone he could think of; writing each day, innumerable letters. He heard Bellet’s quiet reassurances, long after it seemed that Bellet had slipped off to assist the doctor with others.
“Of course,” Bellet said now. “And you must go along and help these men. I believe they have something to tell you.”
They told him nothing. They seemed to speak only German. He kept himself silent throughout their first essay, while his left arm was lifted and a hand pressed under his right knee. He gritted his teeth, until he felt his lip pierced by the broken one. His bound arm could not be touched. His visitors, discovering him unable to walk, sent for a stretcher, and on this, they carried him away.
By now his right eye allowed a watery, unfocused view. He saw a swinging series of street level sights…a design of vine leaves at the base of a lamppost, three pairs of soldier’s boots clustered in conversation, a woman hoisting her hem to cross the gutter. Finally, he saw chipped green paint under the glass of a door.
Inside, they canted the stretcher, and Honoré slid onto a hard surface, his ankle wobbling at its edge. Someone spoke, in a low voice; possibly, he asked a question. A hand pushed what seemed a piece of balled fabric under Honoré’s head.
He heard, some paces off, a terse comment: “I see no reason why it will not do.”
He heard another say, “This is what I have got down.”
The accent, like Tweedloe’s, was British. “Pasty and undernourished…” The man ahemmed, and quoted onwards. “Small-statured…in every way possible of description, the type of the European peasant…” He paused. “Is what he says. You see, it isn’t much to go by. The latter stipulations are apparent; the first would be rather difficult to assess at present. As for the rest…well, I don’t expect he’ll attempt any cleverness, so we’ll dispense with that.”
Honoré heard the door open and shut. He heard the doctor speaking in English. “A minute or two I can spare. I recommend you decide quickly, or you waste your time. This is a disgraceful business.”
“Now, really, sir. We are doing our best to be of help.”
“Does he answer questions?” The voice was that of the man who’d seen no reason why it would not do.
“That,” the doctor said, “you will determine.”
“Can you tell me your name?” The Englishman crouched near Honoré. Close to his ear, he heard the careful enunciation, as though the difficulty might derive from a barrier of language, rather than illness.
He gave his name once again.
“I can think of no explanation,” his questioner observed to the others, “for anyone’s making such a claim, were it not true.”
“Tell me,” the German said, “why you should be here?”
“I,” Honoré told him, “have done nothing. Why won’t they let me go?” He had more to say, but the doctor cut him off.
“No, no, no! Don’t start this! I have only a minute or two that I may spare.”
The Englishman said, “It may be that you are here on some errand…” He gave great significance to the word.
“They hold me here for no reason…”
He heard someone sigh with pronounced exasperation.
“It may be,” the Englishman tried again, “that someone has sent you here on an errand…”
“Tweedloe,” Honoré murmured, trying to order his thoughts, “said I would not speak his name, or the other name…unless I die.” He was sure he had gone wrong. But somehow, his audience at last seemed pleased.
“As I have told you,” the doctor said, “with quiet, and in a more wholesome surrounding, there is some chance. The hospital is a bad place for disease. Do you insist on having those?”
“Not in the least.” The German sounded mildly apologetic. “But they amuse me. I suppose…” He sounded amused. “They are not wholesome. Everything here stinks. The prisoner stinks.”
“That may be remedied to a degree, if you will now provide accommodation in this house. And I must go…but send one of your men for Monsieur Bellet.”
Honoré again heard the door open and shut. He heard the Englishman say, “Really, why do you keep them?”
“I believe the sight of his victories pleases Wolkenbruch. He is encouraged.”
“Wolkenbruch is your bird.”
“Well, say so if you like. You have nothing to do with falconry.”
“No, I confess I never have.”
Honoré heard the jingling of bells. He was sorry he could not now make out much of the conversation. Might the hood come off, the Englishman wanted to know…if it would not upset the creature. The bells again, and a low exchange.
“Of course, naturally, he will wish to take his prey, but he must be trained to the lure.”
“I had not thought of it.”
The passage to this place had shaken Honoré. The voices began to drift. He thought that he waited for a message. A balloon, dispatched from Paris, hovering before the orb of the sun, a lion rampant haloed in fire…was fair sport.
“…and some are merely laughable, or pitiful, one might say. A thing is, or it is not. Nothing is known until it is done. Why, then, send a message to say, may the battle bring glory…” The German laughed, briefly, sounding unamused. “If I translate correctly. The battle, of course, will bring glory to the victor. But why waste time on trifling exchanges? The French are capable of these things.”
Driven by curiosity, Honoré had got his eye open, sufficient to see the ceiling, with its whitewashed timbers. The falcon, leashed to its perch, blinded by its hood, wings tethered by a leather cord, restlessly lifted its talons. The shutters had been drawn to keep the falcon calm…he knew this…
And dimly, Honoré could see two men, moving in shadow as they spoke. But overhead, where the light was stronger, he saw pigeons, their wings splayed, their feet tied, arrayed like executed prisoners, swinging dead from a center beam.
They had taken Honoré by the arm, the right arm that gave so much pain. And they denied everything. They argued because he couldn’t pay the fare. How many times would they say, “There is no train?” And what did they mean by it? If he had to walk all that distance, of course, they would wait so much longer for their money. But he had been told along the way that his father was gone now. Gone to shelter at the mill with the others. He had climbed this hill for hours―at its summit, Honoré saw the dog run ahead. She disappeared into the ruins of the church. He mounted the steps, his panic rising; at last, he knocked at the door. He had been followed here. The door shattered at the touch of his hand; the church was a furnace of flame. The refugees had not escaped, rubble was heaped before the altar, burning corpses danced among the benches. His father said, “I have nothing to give you. I am sorry for that.” Carved figures from a frieze rained, and drove pigeons alighting on the cobbled street into scattered flight. Honoré found the walls of the trench too high. He would die here, in this ring of stones. He saw Bellet’s sad face. Always, he seemed to be there, insisting, “I am such a coward.” Every window of the Emperor’s palace glowed, the garden was circled in bonfires, and Honoré, pressed among the crowd, felt himself suffocating. Below the balconies they massed…they murmured and cursed. The generals who stood above them spoke the same words over and over, “Be quiet. Listen. You must do as you are told.” He reached the river’s edge, but the way to the water was blocked. He lay down to sleep, and was jolted awake. A blackened hand had seized him by the arm. A demonic face, thrust into his, altered and transformed. The demon spoke, and its mask resolved into the grimace of Émile Baum.
Baum said, “The devil knows his own.”
The acrid, coal-smoked fug was ushered away on a gust of wind.
Wind whistled through the open window, carrying the scent of autumn leaves and rain. A film on the glass, of soot impervious to beading raindrops, allowed into the room a diffuse, nickel-colored light. The light was soothing in its opacity, and Honoré, noticing all this, did not at first notice anything remarkable in being able to see it.
He felt no intrusive sensation, no nagging soreness on the left side of his face, so swollen, so blisteringly raw, that even the pressure of a pillow once had brought pain that made him retch. But mistrusting the practices of doctors, Honoré wished to make certain. They might have cut something away. Perhaps only by using his fingers could he feel where it had been.
The weight of comforters seemed oddly obstructive to this process of withdrawing an arm. He had not expected so much lassitude…that a small movement should require such strength of will. Yet (smacking himself with his right hand, needing to employing the left) he found his face ordinary, only scarred in one or two places.
He tried to sit up. He was moderately discouraged. He had decided, however, that while the house was quiet; while seemingly he was alone, he would slip away. The debt he had incurred must be far beyond his means.
A door opened in another room.
One man, in a soft voice, spoke words coming too faint for Honoré to understand them. The other, imperious, having nothing to do with delicacy, said: “A few steps further may be a small matter to you. They are of great moment to me. I have suffered the profitless ordeal once. In any event, I cannot remain here past this evening. Mr. Broughton may, at length, bear witness to some sensible speech from Gremot.”
“But,” the other said, “I have seen these things many times. He attends well, and he does as we instruct. So, I think today, or in a day or two…”
“Well, you may say so.”
Honoré heard wheezing, accompanied by a slow series of hammer blows, the ferrule of Tweedloe’s stick striking the floorboards. “I will take you at your word, but you must help me with these infernal steps, Bellet.”
It was true. Honoré knew Bellet. He had spoken with Bellet. But he had been lost between dreaming and consciousness; until this day, he had not understood that he was awake. So many days must have passed, and he had done nothing much for Tweedloe. He felt his courage falter. And after what seemed an exceptional overture, composed of thuds, heavy exhalations growing louder, and the shuffling gait of Tweedloe’s approach to his cot, Honoré heard the peevish demand:
“Will you take away that screen?”
Hands belonging to the unseen Bellet grappled its two sides. Honoré watched the screen back away, revealing a sloped ceiling and partition of narrowest proportions. His sick room was otherwise in use as a lumber room. He saw a rolled carpet, buckled at the center and pushed into a corner. Chairs were stacked, some standing, others overturned on top, folded draperies laid among the upended legs.
Now the screen was gone, Honoré felt heat, a bellows-like fanning against his exposed arm, one side of his face. Seated inside a fireplace, a stove was drawing air, its pipe clinking like a ticking clock. Tweedloe withheld his attention from the patient, looking with disdain at the rummage, at the square table flush to the wall, carrying the cracked globe of a lamp, a nautical print, and other oddments.
“This is unacceptable, Bellet. I told you so last time.”
“I will fetch the chair, Monsieur Tweedloe.”
Bellet propped the folded screen against the table and thudded down the controversial steps. Tweedloe leaned on his stick. “Do I see an expression of comprehension, Gremot? Or have I put myself out for nothing?”
Speaking sense, Honoré considered, was a thing he had not tried this day. He might be unable to do it. And though without doubt it was to Tweedloe’s intervention he owed his life, he had an uncertain impression of Tweedloe’s mood. Either incurious, or unforbearing, Tweedloe turned his face away to listen for the return of Bellet.
And then, pivoting slowly, he loomed over Honoré, as the stick bore his ominous weight.
“You have, at any rate,” he remarked, straightening, “regained your customary tenement pallor. It may interest you to know that your doctor and—
“Ah, here is Bellet.”
Bellet adjusted his angle, coming on a second time. His arms were stretched to the limits of their reach, and they did not quite encompass the width of the upholstered armchair. Tweedloe watched, his expression unchanging, and sat without thanks, after Bellet had placed the chair beside Honoré’s cot, bowed and backed away.
“As I was saying, it may interest you to know that the question of whether the particular shade of blue you for a time affected, had been brought on by dysentery or by typhus, engendered between monsieur le docteur and your Bellet, the most rigorous of scientific debates.”
Baffled by these complications, Honoré repeated, “Blue.”
“Well,” Tweedloe smiled, “we are nearly having a chat.”
He drew his watch. A minute or two passed in silence.
But not. Gusts of wind were shaking the glass, a humming that grew to a rattle, the noise’s rough harmony with that of the stove drawing pettish glances from Tweedloe. He took up his stick, left resting against across Honoré’s knees. Honoré wondered if the visit were over.
The window frame jammed itself, rather than close, and would not budge. The stick resettled. “I don’t suppose, being that you’re nearby, you might not just reach over… No, well, never mind. I can’t see why you should wish to take a chill, while breathing the odors of the street. You were speaking, a moment ago, Gremot. Had you anything to add? I have a story to tell, but I should be sorry to interrupt…”
These witticisms were of a British type, the refinement too high for Honoré’s guess, as to whether Tweedloe’s humor were kind or cruel. But his purpose could be guessed easily enough. He meant to dun his servant with the cost of all this care. And Honoré, while not disputing the obligation, protested within himself. He had not asked Tweedloe to spend so much. He must apologize, and hope for clemency.
He heard himself say, “A story.”
“A story, Gremot. How I came to be mired in the trap. You seem alert. The story concerns you, Gremot. As you will recall, I had advanced to you a sum of money in anticipation of your wages. We had arrived at an understanding, you and I. Indeed, you had sent to me one communication; albeit, I must note here, that even as concerns your interview with Captain Müller, you found it clever to exceed your mandate. And with what result, eh? I will concede I felt―at the time―that you had, or seemed to have, adequately performed the duties for which I had hired you.
“After a lapse of many days, it had occurred to me you might, after all, be no more than the petty rogue for which I had at first been inclined to take you. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to put your description about. I have a number of friends upon whom I rely. The news which I received of you was disquieting. I dispatched an agent of mine, a man called Broughton, to make enquiries. Thus I discovered that you had, predictably, run afoul.
“However, Broughton returned with assurances that the thing was really a question of money. During the chaos immediately following the débâcle, the extremity of need was such that every standing house was commandeered to serve as hospital. Actual beds could, at best, be provided only for the gravely wounded. Others were given any place which might be found; disease, I have been told, has done with appalling efficiency its part to improve the overcrowded state of accommodations. However, the doctor had given Broughton to understand that where private means were available, private arrangements might be made.
“Naturally, my first thought was of the hundreds of worthier men languishing in these middens…and with whom I had, of course, nothing to do. Philosophically speaking, it seemed rather hard, for all that, that one who had proved himself essentially useless should receive this unique privilege.
“Gremot, I considered the alternative. I had no reason to doubt, from reports of your activities, that in your own way—and in something at least approaching good faith—you had been about your work. Money…”
Tweedloe leaned to peer at Honoré. “Is a small matter. Or, it may be a great matter.”
He sat for a while, facing the window. Now the rain fell so heavily its grime was washed almost clean. “I felt the responsibility was mine. In human decency, I could not refuse. I had made you a promise. Should I have found it necessary to write your father, how would I have accounted for myself? It is not going so far, after all, to set right those things one can…when the question is only one of money.”
This private arrangement was what Honoré had feared. Hushed, he asked, “Was it very much money?”
“Gremot, you are greatly in my debt. I have calculated…and making allowances in your favor…that you owe me fifty-two pounds. Thus far. It has been necessary for me to prolong my stay. I had intended returning to London at the end of September. We must take into consideration Mr. Broughton’s excursions on your behalf; also, the engagement of Bellet…all of these expenses, in addition to the room, which you continue to occupy.”
Honoré could not conceive of fifty-two pounds; the amount sounded exorbitant. “I apologize, monsieur. You will have me arrested then. I would not earn so much in a year.”
“Gremot, you mustn’t speak tiresome rot. Not that I expect you to have followed the news. However…first: it would be a question, to whom one would apply, if one wished to have you arrested. The Prussians have hosted you all this while; they have had a great deal of your society, and very perceptively, conclude they would like to be rid of you. The French have managed to form a sort of government; yet, in its infancy, it is poorly equipped to administer to such small affairs. Second…you do not really suppose, do you, that I would wait weeks for you to have recovered sufficiently to render some service for which you might earn a wage, only to have you thrown into a cell, where you would, sans doute, relapse into the consumptive state endemic to your kind, by which it typically burdens society, requiring charity, rather than meeting its obligations?”
Tweedloe’s harsh terms, Honoré felt, were unjust. His enterprises would be ruined by debt, as his father had predicted.
“I am very grateful to you.”
“I care nothing for your gratitude. When I enjoined you to silence, I had no notion of invoking your peasant superstition. I cannot allow my name to be bandied about. As I have mentioned, you had given me no reason to place in you a high degree of trust. I would have expected you, nevertheless, to have sought my help at once, when clearly it was of the essence to do so. You have succeeded in causing more trouble than necessary, for me and for yourself.”
Not, Honoré supposed, that trouble ought to be necessary. “As soon as may be, I will leave. They have taken my clothes, I think.”
“They have burned your infested rags. A letter of yours, which is to my eyes quite illegible, has been saved for you…along with a most disreputable specimen of forgery, upon the intended purpose of which, I will not speculate. Also, your Romish trinkets. And I will again request you to stop speaking rot. I must myself leave, however.”
He bellowed, and Bellet, who had been no further away than the steps, hurried to his help. Tweedloe bore his weight against the stick; Bellet, taking a position at the back of the chair, pushed. Then seizing the advantage of forward momentum, he darted to the front, to pull Tweedloe by the arm, uprighting him.
Tweedloe told Honoré, “I am leaving France. You will deal henceforth with Broughton. If you do not know Broughton, Broughton knows you, at any rate. He will instruct you, when you are fit to perform the tasks by which you will discharge your debt. Do not make of yourself too great a burden on the good offices of Monsieur Bellet. He feels sorry for you. I have informed him that you have an indifferent parent; you are not wholly without friends. Goodbye, Gremot.”
He resolutely turned his face away, and departed at his usual pace. Although by this time permitted, Honoré understood Tweedloe wished him to say no more. They had reached another of their agreements; Honoré now, with no illusion of power to negotiate. He would learn what Broughton’s tasks amounted to.
They had found for Honoré a suit of clothes. Yes, he told himself, in sour mood, they had made a beggar of him, made him small once more, in these too-large cast-offs, which might be not even that, only scavenge from a vacant house. In that case trash, the spoils of war.
Yet his gloom made allowance for a degree of gratitude. He was now suitably dressed for going out; this capacity, the necessary first stage of escape—to appear on the street without causing alarm. And while he had not been prohibited from venturing off, he felt constrained, as though under house arrest.
He was not well enough to elope. If he were still a prisoner, his jailers understood this.
But daily, Honoré crept from his cot and sat for a while, as he took his meals. The table had been cleared, the chairs placed on the floor. The seats of these were frayed, their curved backs badly abraded, a pale green paint scraped away, an earlier layer of azure exposed. The effect, the contrast, was pleasing, and Honoré wished for his watercolors. He felt low in spirits and intensely bored.
The lumber room, though, was becoming crowded with crates. The men carried them in and took them away, not looking at Honoré; he did not dare peer inside. Some trade or provisioning was being conducted from this house. They had about them as they worked an air of awareness, of over-conscious care, the suppressed smile of hidden pride. Paper money, Honoré guessed, remained of little value. His own had gone in any case.
One morning, hearing door after door slam below, and for hours afterwards a leaden quietude, he decided to explore. He approached the limit of his confinement, the threshold over which his visitors came and went. Bellet and M. Broughton did so at their ease, but Honoré had not yet tried it. He was fearful of being noticed out of his room, chivvied back upstairs (Tweedloe’s stairs, as he thought of them)…
But, ears pricked, he took a cautious step, then another, then descended to the lower landing.
The staircase opened onto a sort of reception room. Holding to the wall with one hand, the bannister with the other, he leaned out, found the room empty, and was able to study it at leisure.
It spanned the width of the house. On either side of the door were pairs of windows; beneath each pair a wooden bench. It had been on one of these, Honoré thought, he had lain―it must have been so—the day he’d been carried here. And he could see, his heart uplifting, the street beyond, busy with its ordinary traffic.
Under the bannister opposite, a desk faced the door, partitioning the room in half, front and back―a tradesman’s desk, designed for the exchange of coin and the filing of paper. A shelf crossed at front, this side of which was a row of cubbyholes and small drawers, concealed from the customer. On the wall farthest to his left, he saw a small writing desk…an object native to the house, as he supposed, for its angled front was delicately painted, its turned legs like strings of beads. This had been fitted against the wainscoting, and sat adjacent to one bench. A second door, roughly aligned to a wall of his own room, must lead to a sort of cupboard.
He saw that the house had fallen into silence because they had all gone, and he was alone. He could remember something of this room…the white-washed ceiling and diamond-paned windows, whose pattern cast on the floor milky coin-dots of light. The corner, shuttered no longer, held no sign of the falcon.
Honoré persuaded himself that he would cross the room; that he would sit for an hour or two on one of the benches. No one ought to mind. He would go, certainly, should anyone return and order him to do so. He saw waver through the bank of windows, a timid shaft of sunlight merge the dots at his feet into a shivering whole. The sun passed behind a cloud, the little spheres dimmed and once again separated. Charmed by this effect, he had not―until the handle turned―noticed Broughton at the door.
Broughton smiled, as though it gratified his expectations to find Honoré in this room. He turned his back and the latch clicked. He dropped a key in his pocket, removed his hat, slipped his cane into the umbrella holder, and placed his hat over its handle.
“I trust I do not find you in want of anything, Gremot?”
Feeling vaguely in the wrong, while knowing of no rule he had broken, Honoré explained, in any case, “The house seemed to have no one here.”
“So it would appear, indeed.” Yet Broughton made a show of scanning the room from end to end. “If, Gremot, you find yourself interested in the world’s affairs, sit with me, and I will tell you as much news as I know of, at present. I have an appointment; clearly, I am to be kept waiting.”
They had met, after a fashion, before Honoré had come to know Broughton…the Englishman who had at first questioned him. Who memorably had insulted him, but not, Honoré supposed, with intent. Broughton’s manner was mild, his face thin, his cheekbones high and sharp, and for all his good nature, his eyes were capable of a misanthropic narrowing. Honoré knew when a line from one of Broughton’s newspapers had angered him, by the way he traced his finger along it, and read the offending words twice over.
From the day, if not the hour, of Tweedloe’s departure, Broughton had arrived, and begun his weekly visits to the sickbed. And though his courtesy was impeccable, he did not call for the sake of courtesy. He represented Tweedloe’s interests. His purpose was to cast an assessing eye on the progress of his master’s protégé.
“Gremot, what have you to say for yourself?”
It was a question invariably asked, one of an idiomatic nature, that required some formula in answering; a formula Honoré did not understand, and was afraid to stab at. “But if you wish to know, I am well today.”
His caution made Broughton chuckle. “And have you any complaint, or is there anything that you require, Gremot?”
Continued from “No, monsieur”
After one or two of these exchanges, Broughton determined that Honoré could report nothing of himself to Tweedloe’s satisfaction.
“Monsieur Bellet, you are a man of regular habit?”
Bellet, searching for the leather-bound book in which he kept notes on each of his patients―its dark cover, that disguised itself laid amongst the furnishings, caused frequent distress―glanced upwards in hesitation, his brow furrowing. Seeing he had not made himself clear, Broughton spoke again. “I will expect to find you attending to Gremot, at about this hour every day?”
“Ah, yes. At present, I have four others…I have Madame Ducluet in her own house. I have the Scottish gentleman who makes photographs…cholera…” Bellet whispered this name. “But, perhaps not. The weather, you know this, monsieur, has turned.”
Bellet found his book, and began to leaf. “Now it is not only the soldiers…”
“Monsieur Bellet, you are quite right to remind me, so politely, that I must not take too much of your time. And I myself have other business which I ought no longer to neglect.”
Honoré with admiration noted the tactic; he noted also, that in the days following this conversation, Broughton stepped into the room just as Bellet was on the point of leaving. He and Bellet faced each other and spoke over Honoré’s head. Broughton’s enquiries adhered to his mandate, and were specific as to the indications of restored fitness; Bellet expanded on the same in frank detail. Now and again the humiliated patient was included, his attendant casting upon him a smile, somewhat strained and hurried.
“…and you may keep this, if you like.”
Broughton now folded the newspaper from which he had been reading a translation of the new minister of state’s defiant letter. “It is a London paper, the Gazette. You tell me you are interested in improving your English?”
“Yes, monsieur. Thank you, monsieur.” The paper reminded Honoré. “Monsieur, did you find it possible…?”
“You need not be quite so punctiliously polite, now we are friends, Gremot. If you will look under the lid of the little writing desk.”
Broughton rose from the bench, and opening the door, stepped outside for a moment, leaving Honoré puzzled. “Yes, I see the sergeant.” His nod was affable as he reentered. “I believe what I have found may be of some use to you. But you will know best.”
He had not liked to ask for more than he was given. But some crippling injury had been done…even yet, Honoré could not lift his right arm above the shoulder. A tremor worsened when he cinched his forefinger and thumb in a utilitarian grip. And the future, with each day that had succeeded his optimistic waking; that contrasted his infirmity against the freedoms which, one by one, were coming back to him, seemed to nod phlegmatically at his fear, asking that he believe in this altered life. He could use his right hand only by steadying the wrist with his left. Over time, most of the damage inflicted by Baum had healed; this had not.
While eating his supper one evening, Honoré was brave enough to take up the knife in the manner of a pencil, to manipulate this as though he had his sketchbook before him on the table. The knife had fallen to the floor. He’d asked Broughton if paper could be spared. “Also, a pencil, charcoal, anything you may have.”
He hadn’t looked at Broughton, saying this. Honoré had felt shy about the request.
He saw now, as he lowered the desk’s lid, that what Broughton had found was a small box of charcoal sticks, most, by chance or purpose, snapped in two. The writing paper (Honoré lifting for him a blank sheet and enquiring face; Broughton confirming, “Yes, yes, precisely so”) was his to employ.
“I believe you will find ink also…and one or two pens. You may like to write your father. A note in your own hand will be more reassuring to him than that of Mr. Tweedloe.”
In fact, there were half a dozen holders, and brass nibs not so tidily arranged as to be separated by size; yet of paper, holders, nibs and ink, each had its own compartment, kept in division from the rest.
“That is the desk,” Broughton told him, for Honoré―who would not send a note to his father―stood hesitating over this minutiae, “at which I write my own correspondence.”
No, his father’s temper could not be improved by the receipt of a letter written in Honoré’s hand, one admitting to the disaster of which, in his heart, M. Gremot had known all along. But Broughton’s presumptions nudged Honoré towards a dilemma, placing him so that he must either pretend to write, or explain his objection to doing so.
A worry, a second dilemma—one worth sitting down to think about—made itself felt on the heels of this first. He sat, stared at the paper…then reboxed the charcoals, making no attempt to use a pen…not yet, and not before witnesses.
The sergeant soon came in at the door, hung up his overcoat, and glided through the channel between the larger desk and the stairs, greeting Broughton, telling him in a friendly manner that the weather had taken up raining again, but wanted to snow.
“And yet for a time this morning, we had sun. You have been out visiting, Herr Broughton. You have been looking to hire a man, I hear.”
Broughton said only, “Quite.”
The theme of their chat became the progress of the war; but of this, they exchanged vagaries and platitudes. Honoré was reminded of the woman who brought his meals. Her cooking for him was a daily chore; daily, she brought water to fill his pitcher and wash basin. Weekly, she changed his bedsheets and swept his room.
She had never told her name. She spoke when her work demanded it. Having hours free in which to contemplate the small number of features, and the few changes of scene, his life now contained, Honoré gave her some consideration. She might not, for the sake of today’s wages, be about destroying her peace on the morrow; she might, rather, mitigate her earning of the enemy’s money, by carrying news from this house to friends in town. And if she did, he wished she would carry the truth.
“The war goes on.”
It was the worst of commonplaces, but in times past, Honoré had never known anyone reject this invitation.
This woman did, however. She was sweeping ash from the stove; she did not turn her back, or so much as grunt, by way of acknowledging she’d heard him speak.
“But the army has been driven westwards, and we are now well behind the front…”
With the intention of provoking her, he cut to a pregnant pause.
She got to her feet, holding her brush and pail. “What, then?”
“Then, madame…I suppose I may return to Belgium. I am well enough to travel, I think. And I have my work to finish.”
He had wanted her to ask, what was his work? And that, she would not do.
Broughton wanted him to write his father. Broughton had been looking to hire a man. Honoré feared he could guess the meaning of these two things taken together. Broughton had finished assessing him, and would recommend against Tweedloe’s taking him on. He raised the lid a crack, plucked out a few more sheets of paper, pocketed the charcoal, and walked between Broughton and the sergeant, conversing on about inconsequential things. He began to climb the stairs, leaving Tweedloe’s agent, who would forgive this rudeness, without a word of farewell.
But the next day, he hadn’t the courage to test himself. Instead, he padded down the stairs and sat, one step below the landing, so that he could both study visitors to the house, and watch those things the sergeant did behind the concealing shelf. For a week longer he made a routine of this, his eyes falling half-closed in a trance of inertia, until the woman came. After eating his lunch, Honoré curled into his blanket and napped through the afternoon, telling himself, “A little more time is good. My arm will only have healed better.”
Broughton, as though he’d truly begun severing the tie between them, hadn’t come back. Honoré felt sad and invisible.
Today, the room was cold. He sat on the floor, beside the stove, and saw through the window a bleak, lowering sky. His beautiful gift, which had been his second nature, was lost. He tried, for the third time, to keep his hand steady, to draw simple lines.
When he had been too small to know that what he felt was despair, Honoré had learned he had this gift, the artist’s eye. He had seen his father give money to a woman. She gathered her black skirts into the room, and behind her, the door closed. Her face, cupped in the ruching of a saddle-shaped bonnet, looked to Honoré like the button at the center of a cushion. She had taken the children on a train, carried Michel in her arms, though Michel was bigger than Honoré. From the station, they’d walked―he remembered how slowly―and the woman had wept aloud for the weight of his brother, stopping at every house to lift her knee, anchor the toe of her shoe, and murmur apologies to Michel for jostling him in this way.
To Honoré and his sister, she had said: “Go! Go! Keep in front of me, so I can see you.”
The night was black, and they crossed a wide street; pausing often now to wait while the woman lowered Michel’s feet to the walk, hugged him to her stomach, and rested her back against a low wall. On the other side of this, a river flowed. Glimmers of light from their hanging lamps could be seen limning the prows of boats that floated here.
“Here!” She had called out. “Here!”
A man’s voice grumbled, “Now, this is no good.”
When Honoré scrambled from the wall, he saw that the man had made himself one of their party; that he had taken Michel and now held him with one arm, leaning backwards for balance, a lantern in his other hand.
This he raised, and asked, as he looked down on Honoré: “Which are you?”
Claudette, rocking cross-legged on the walk, drew a gurgling breath and exhaled a sob. Honoré stared up at the man’s great moustache and blackened pores.
“Honoré. This is Monsieur Feriet, my husband.”
Feriet told her, “Pick up the girl, and give that one the lantern.”
“Take a tight hold, Honoré…it’s not heavy.”
She released the handle; Honoré’s hand dropped. The flame sputtered.
“Lift it high. Be careful!”
The man also instructed. “Hold it steady, come here, and keep beside me.” And for having entrusted him with a job, Honoré liked Monsieur Feriet; on that first day, he’d wanted to trust in kind.
Every several days afterward, when he returned from the pit, Feriet fell on the house like a cloud of ash; his largeness seemed to suck the oxygen from his wife’s lungs. He emerged, and she sank. Alone, Honoré’s sister could check her ire, be fair to the children, generous, when moved to it―though she did not love her young siblings, or want them in her house.
But, let Feriet once fling wide the door, cross to the kitchen, throw himself into his chair by the stove, his heavy steps cracking the floorboards, the toes of his boots and his loud voice clearing a swath before him…
Let him once order her to withhold supper, or to fetch the strap…
She became his servant, with no heart to defy him.
Somewhat to his shame, Honoré was unsure he knew the baptismal name of this eldest sister. Already before his birth, she had been married and gone with Feriet to this house in Liège. She was so many years older she might have been Honoré’s mother…a harsh mother. A red flush simmered beneath her pallid cheeks. He had called her madame, and apologized for eating her bread. This was much to the Feriets, these three mouths to feed, foisted upon a childless couple; worse, Michel all the while fading, ill as their mother had been.
“I allow it, and that’s enough. You will have to buy cheaper.”
As to bread, Feriet gave his wife this answer; he would, he said, come home again before the month’s end, if he were able. And, no, not either could he leave money for the doctor. He waved off this second plea, using the same reasoning he’d applied to the first. “I am not your father, madame. I will not promise to pay what I can’t afford. You will find out what price the doctor hopes to get. And if we are too unprofitable to him and he refuses to help, ask for the priest.”
Claudette, at the age of four not a full year younger than Honoré, could be of some small help to Mme Feriet; and Madame said it was best she learned her chores. “Because if you marry one day, you will keep your husband’s house, and if you never marry, what will you do but keep house for someone else? For a poor woman, the work is all the same.”
Claudette could wipe the table clean with a rag, she could pull a stool to the stove, and stir the pot. Madame’s temper was strong concerning the stove. She chased the children into the parlor before lighting it, and had once, doing so, smacked Honoré for “coming up behind her”.
“Be careful on that stool! Mind you don’t fall in the fire!”
The picture made Honoré giggle; Claudette spun, the stool’s feet going tock, tock, tock on the floor, the rendered fat that dripped from the spoon sizzling and smoking on the stove’s iron top. Claudette giggled, too. They infected each other, and were silly together. They might have shared the same thought. How could you do it…fall inside a stove?
Their sister wrested the spoon away, took Claudette under the arms, swung her off the stool onto her feet. She charged into the parlor, with Honoré chasing after her. Madame yelled again, “Hot!” and added: “Oh, I can tell you a story about a child who would not keep away from the fire!”
Michel’s pallet was here, warmed by the stove, and when Madame did her marketing, she took Claudette with her, telling Honoré: “Sit with your brother and be good.” Of course, Michel could do nothing that needed watching. He had been very still. She had forbade Honoré to leave the house…mysteriously, she had told him as well, “If you need help, run knock at the neighbor’s.”
He got the shutter unlatched, to see for himself this door he was to knock at, leaned far over the window’s edge, and saw at the bottom of the street a mud-brown puddle, its surface undisturbed, mirroring…movement. A flock of sooty, heavy-bodied birds arced above a picture of housetops.
He leaned further, to see if the fascinating thing had been real. Black window glass and a red shutter made an image on the puddle’s surface; the birds crossed this in their flight, and crossed themselves again, tiny dots traversing the glass, twice reflected. He watched and watched…and began to hate the puddle. He used the kitchen stool to reach a high shelf where his sister kept two candle-stubs in a tin box. After the first splash, and the second, Honoré looked for other things to throw.
Beside the stove sat the coal hod.
In his sister’s house, Honoré hid for many hours of the day. He could crawl under the bed and pull himself up to the window, shelter there in the folds of the curtain, his head just above the sill. It was winter now, the space cramped and cold, so cold the glass frosted anew where Honoré, with the hem of his shirt sleeve, had rubbed a circle. He saw in this shape the sun rising above the river Meuse. He told a story to himself, of things he remembered from the old house, and began with a fingertip to make his first drawing.
It was his mother’s death in the sweltering July of that year, that had forced them from the rooms debt had driven them to; yet only much later had Honoré understood that his father had been imprisoned.
“It was too much.”
She, Mme Feriet, with tearful eyes, whispered these words. Their father had come at last to fetch them. With a hand on Papa’s sleeve, she crowded him back at the door.
“I cannot make more than I earn.”
Her husband, rendering her discretion useless, strode, his fist clamped over Honoré’s hand, to plant his two boots at the threshold…with the heel of one, he trapped the hem of his wife’s skirt, and with the other, barred the way against his father-in-law. “Blame yourself that Michel is dead.”
Theirs was such a scattered family, so afflicted. Honoré was uncertain of his father’s age, yet M. Gremot must be over sixty. So many Gremots, and no business or trade to apprentice the sons to, no dowry for the daughters. His father, being nothing at his place of work, bore down heavily on faults found at home. It seemed to Honoré they had rarely spoken, except the conversation were strained, the circumstance fraught. Yet on one occasion, his eyes faraway and strangely calm, Papa had said to Honoré and Claudette, “You will remember the time you stayed at the house of Monsieur Feriet.”
They were dead, his eldest sister and her brutal husband, of the smallpox. “Both carried away, yes.”
Of the six Gremots Honoré had known in childhood, three survived. He tried, again, to draw the face of this sister as he remembered her. When had he last seen her? They were lost to each other; they had been for years. She’d written him from her married home in Bruges, her letters so dull and difficult to read. Claudette’s speech was no worse than Honoré’s, but she hadn’t the skill to write things down. Not her spelling alone, but her store of words was poor. He knew the cloth merchant, her husband, made her do work for him in his warehouse, but for all the interest her life seemed to hold, she might never have left her rooms.
Honoré had not meant to ignore her.
Being thought gifted, he, of all the Gremot children, had been saved for; expectations, for Honoré, held out. His father, seeing nothing of promise in his son’s tastes, other than that, if he were able to delineate the articulation of a bird’s skeleton, he might one day be a doctor, had dreamt of medical college. He had spent his francs on tutors to secure his son’s place at a good secondary school. And each unsatisfactory mark, each bad report―“Your son cannot be taught Latin”―had aggravated his bitterness.
When he’d last seen M. Gremot, Honoré had told him, “But of course I work. I am a journalist.”
His father answered: “Do you know what you are? You are nothing, Honoré.”
His hand shaking, Honoré drew an eye, a black eye, deeply shaded. He left space for the pupil’s highlight, that gave expression to this. For some minutes, he looked at her. Black eyes set in hollow dark circles, a trait shared by all Gremot faces. And even this, which Honoré considered a worthless drawing, gave animation to his loss. He opened the stove door, and taking them all―all his failed efforts―thrust them inside.
“Is there any way in which I may be of help?”
Broughton was there, and Honoré had not heard him on the stairs. “Or shall I send at once for Monsieur Bellet?”
“This is nothing.” He stood, searching his pockets for a handkerchief, and turned away.
“You may like,” Broughton said, “to leave this house for a bit. A walk, as far as the end of the street, would not be over-tiring, do you think?”
The words came half-choked. “You must begin instructing me these tasks for Monsieur Tweedloe. I have a trade to learn.”
“That, we will perhaps discuss, as we go along.”
The green door closed. They walked, and Honoré saw a town more ordinary than he had expected. Some great earthquake might have shaken Sedan. Useful timber had been carried away for firewood; what remained of structures in ruin were standing chimneys, empty open rooms. Shops traded, as briskly as small stock allowed, shutters drawn over cracked or missing glass, and anything used to keep out the draft—splintered shingles, paper, rags…tufts of sheep’s wool. Everywhere people waited in queues.
An anxious overflow of customers blocked the walkway outside a butcher’s shop. Honoré saw a man push past the throng at the door, hugging a sack to his chest. He could not guess what was in the sack; but at once, beckoning to patrons at the rear of the line, the man gathered a crowd. They came to him rooting in their purses.
“I tell you. This is not horsemeat. I won’t be insulted.”
Bundled to excess in greatcoat and muffler, Honoré felt at his innermost layer an uncomfortable stickiness. The weather was damp, the view ahead veiled in fine drizzle. The rain seemed not to fall but to precipitate mid-air.
“We will cross here.” Broughton’s hand halted Honoré. “Once these vehicles pass by. I have it in mind to stop at a house a short way further ahead. Not far at all. I have some business to conduct, and if we are lucky, we may be given tea. At any rate, we will rest there for a while, before walking back.”
They watched a four-wheeled carriage, drawn by an ill-assorted team, one horse robust and sleek, one emaciated, each pulling at odds with the other, jerk its way up the street.
“When we have arrived at Monsieur Biencourt’s house, you may ask questions, should there be any particular thing you wish to know. Pay attention to your surroundings.”
Honoré turned to his left, towards the traffic. Of this, there was not much, now they’d left the shops and only residences lined the street. There was one man, distant, who strolled alone, a pair who leaned head to head, arm in arm…but no man or woman who stood close by.
Looking back the way he’d come, he could see the hilltop fort, its churned earthworks, the phantom movements of its present occupants along the ramparts, a patch of black on its alien flag, snapping in the wind. He saw no imminent danger. He heard a sharp noise, like a gunshot, repeated three times… This was the clap of a doorknocker. Broughton, while Honoré fathomed his last remark, had gone up the street and climbed the steps of a house.
Honoré hurried to catch him; already the door was swinging open.
He followed Broughton into a cold sitting room papered in blue, illuminated by no other source than its front windows. Everything was bathed in greyish light, chill like the surface of an ice-coated pond. An under-fueled fire smoldered on the grate.
“Monsieur le général,” Broughton said. “I present to you one of our friends, Honoré Gremot. Gremot, Monsieur Biencourt.”
Biencourt was elderly, so much so, he might have earned his rank fighting in the Crimea. Unbowed by age, he stood a head taller than Honoré and Broughton. Honoré worried now a second visitor had not been expected, that, having again asked for nothing, he was again to be in debt.
He heeded Broughton’s intimation, bowed, and addressed his host: “Monsieur le général, I am honored.”
“A small honor.” The general smiled, at this very small joke. “As I have no great hospitality to offer. You may wish to leave on your coats. Please sit.”
He gestured. A stiff-backed divan covered in green silk had been drawn near the fire. A single armchair sat angled to the divan. The armchair looked comfortable. Broughton shed his rain-dampened cape; leaving this among a collection of household coats, on a hook by the door, he chose the divan, and lowered himself carefully onto its edge.
Honoré kept his coat on, moved to the mantelpiece, feeling warmed here, at knee height, by a fraction. The painting was a biblical or an allegorical subject; an argument, in which a crowd of men participated generously, with much contentious waving of hands, while in the background broke above a mountain landscape, an apocalyptic storm.
“You may not guess the artist,” Biencourt said, “He is Swiss. Monsieur Binn. I have another painting to show you. But I will not ask you to wait for your coffee. Madame!”
He went to a door, that stood open. A staircase could be seen beyond; running parallel to this, a hallway.
“Madame Freneau!” Biencourt rapped on the door.
She was of Biencourt’s age. As though she’d waited couched in the staircase niche, she entered promptly, bearing a tray. Biencourt then, in the way of a host trotting to his duty, bent his spine and drew the table closer to the fire.
The servant knelt, placing the tray. “Messieurs, you have your coffee.”
“Indeed,” Biencourt said, “and I will pour, while you bring the rest.”
He did not immediately pour, and the woman did not immediately go. Honoré, having come to rest against an icy marble column that decorated the mantel, crossed his arms and hugged himself. Mme Freneau clucked. She gathered her skirts away from hazardous contact with the grate, and made a sweeping turn.
When a second door was heard to open and close, Biencourt sat on the divan, and said to Broughton, “No, I do not have tea. I can offer chocolate. Chocolate is beneficial to the health. Perhaps you would prefer it.”
“I have got into the habit of coffee, living in Paris,” Broughton said.
“If you have seen enough of Binn, you may take the armchair,” Biencourt told Honoré. “Rainwater will do it no harm.”
Breathing hard, the servant returned to nudge a plate against the coffee pot, both holding their places in precarious balance. In this war-straitened town, Honoré was astonished to see half-a-dozen pastries…pastries that smelled of butter, were layered in almonds and glacéed slices of orange, and might have been obtained from a Paris pâtisserie, as such things had been in days before the Siege.
He gulped coffee, and took one. “No, no,” Biencourt told him. “I am too old. I have these only for guests. Two at least, certainly. And you, Broughton.” He looked meaningfully at Broughton. “You see, some things are not so difficult; others we cannot have at any price.”
Honoré, thinking for the moment of nothing else, relished Biencourt’s good, bitter coffee, drawing its warmth into his hands. While Biencourt and Broughton sat absorbed in conversation, he ate the larger share of the pastries. He then tried to listen with better care, recollecting Broughton’s remark.
“As I see it, in any case,” Broughton said, “there is great value in present gain. We labor to fix things in their places, and we know they cannot stay. Human nature is such that the strongman of the moment will always seek to follow the path from available means to political dominance.”
“I agree. Surrender, conditional or unconditional, is only a state of the present. It happens often, this collapse of the spirit, this degradation that makes utter ruin seem easier only because there is no responsibility in ruin. Everything must be rebuilt from the ashes. And you know, Broughton, to some people, the idea is attractive.”
Biencourt placed his cup and saucer on the floor. Honoré heard his footsteps on the carpet cross behind the armchair. Broughton’s gaze, he noticed, followed Biencourt. To see what Biencourt was about, Honoré shifted elbows onto knees, the woolen cloth of his coat making a rustling noise. He saw that Biencourt stared at the street, palms flat on a narrow table, eyes too abstracted to be studying the view.
But awakened, he took up a small, unframed picture. “Honoré, you may have an opinion of this. This is the art they make in Paris now. I find it cheerful to look at on such grey days. Though it is somewhat absurd. Why, I wonder, so many dabs of purple and yellow in the sky?”
The little canvas was the size of a tea tray, its subject simple—a hillside that swam in wildflowers, a woman at its summit, her face pensive. The sky and her summer dress, the flowers and the racing clouds, all these things appeared to dance, as the petals of a flower might do in life…taken by a gust of wind, glanced upon by a ray of sun. Honoré found himself entranced by the woman, her melancholy face seeming to flicker with incipient expression. In a moment, the clouds would part…she would smile. Yet her eyes were black dots, her mouth a red line, the shadows below her cheekbones dashes of blue.
He had lost the thread of Broughton and Biencourt’s talk. He looked up, alert—a name, he thought, had been mentioned. Biencourt, rather than take his seat, had gone to peer through the other window. Unnoticed by Honoré, Broughton had joined him.
“One finds one’s way,” Broughton was saying. “We hope for progress…or I should perhaps say, we hope to keep pace with progress. We assume the risk, for we believe that by our own hands, we are better served. Should we have begun with an overly sanguine view, we might only find ourselves forced to backtrack. And the bridge may no longer be there, after all.”
His glance implied rebuke, some way in which Honoré had failed.
He knew he had not paid attention.
“As we speak of clouds and gloom,” Biencourt said, “I am reminded. I have more to offer my guests. I will return.”
They heard him uneven and slow on the stairs.
Broughton came back to the divan. “Suppose, Gremot, that I have learned a thing. I may have got it right. Or I may not. Rumors, as you know, can in the retelling become greatly distorted. Suppose that I or any man mention in conversation a thing material to your interests…there is no need to start or give outward sign. It cannot profit you to do so. I said to you that in this house you might safely put a question to me, should you have one.”
It was an embarrassment Broughton understood him so well. Honoré did not understand Broughton. But he needed the answer to this question too desperately to offer evasion. “I cannot wish evil. If Émile Baum is alive…”
Continued from “Baum is alive”
“Émile Baum is long dead. The news, I will take the liberty of assuming, sets your mind at ease.”
The unease had been composed of fear and bafflement. Honoré was a stranger in Paquette’s house. Baum had hated him at once. What he had represented to Baum, he could not guess; the experience had been new. Baum’s death meant freedom from this terror, but Honoré sat puzzled.
“I think… Émile Baum may have been more the troublemaker. If Paquette had not had this friend to tell him things…”
“Certainly. Baum was precisely that insinuating type. He would have had everyone carrying out his ideas, while insisting that he had no ideas whatever.” Broughton abandoned all pretense of delicacy towards the silk brocade, and wedged himself against the arm of the divan, relaxing as far as possible. “The circumstances, were unfortunate—from your perspective. Consider my point about rumors. The Prussians have had a great deal of this barbarism talk. If they must execute a man summarily, the story will be told by those who have witnessed the act. Therefore, the Prussians take care as much as possible to turn no weapon upon those who cannot be proved to have fired first. Baum had given himself up, he was unarmed. No good purpose could have been served by giving impetus to wild, inflammatory legend. The intention had been to question Baum, and afterwards, to release him to the disposition of the French authorities―for Baum was a citizen, not a soldier. However, I have been told that on the morning following his attack upon you, Baum was found dead…as it is supposed, at the hands of a fellow prisoner. Such accidents are known to occur.
“A man like Baum, wherever he fetches up, will pursue his own course. And a corrosive, poisonous course it is. Yet, naturally, the officers, having thousands in their charge, could not have given special attention to one isolated case.”
“Monsieur Broughton, I thank you for telling me this.”
Honoré studied Binn’s painting. The clouds, fixed to the left and right, carbuncular in shape, pulsed with forks of lightning in accord with no law of nature. The position, he said to himself, needs framing logically.
Broughton expected his questions to be intelligent; what, then, did he need to know? What did he know already? Tweedloe was a man of resource. His name, as it appeared, commanded respect. He spoke of Broughton as his agent. An agent might perform various offices. In the house where he lived, Honoré had been permitted to view the conduct of trade. These activities had not been concealed, nor had they been explained. He was, perhaps, being tested…to discover his loyalties. Now, he had been taken here, and told this house was safe. A safe house for the exchange of information.
“Tweedloe holds a place of trust.”
“He does indeed.”
“He said to me once…”
Honoré looked steadily at Broughton. He felt Broughton’s prompt would be conveyed more in his manner of answering, than in his words. He felt utter truth, his knowing it when he spoke it, vital here, and so amended: “He said, in effect, that if to him my work was acceptable, he would send me to Paris.”
“Tweedloe has exactly that in mind. Now, I will put a question to you, Gremot. The German language is unknown to you.”
It was not a question, but a remark of the ambiguous sort, to which a “yes” or “no” would not wholly serve. Honoré said, “I do not speak German.”
“You may find yourself unhappy in Paris.” This was thoughtful, almost reminiscent. “She has become a stranger to herself, unfamiliar even to those who love her, in these latter days. However, some prefer to be lost. Chaos bears a kinship to excitement. A debt…”
His eyes met Honoré’s, and focused, like a bird of prey’s.
“…might readily be discharged. One would then be free to do as one pleased.”
These words sounded like an offer; as well, they sounded dangerous. Broughton, Tweedloe’s trusted agent. The house of Biencourt, the safe house, where anything might be plainly said.
“But, I will pay this debt.” One cannot do all of what one pleases, Honoré thought.
“You speak English well.”
He nearly blushed at this change of subject, to feel so flattered. He had worked at his English. But also the praise was worrying. “Not well… Because a word you use to me, I will say again to you, and then I hope you won’t shake your head at me! I guess what this word is, if I have understood it. And to speak to you, then, I ask myself, what word do I know that must be right? But you English have so many words.”
“You have an excellent intuitive facility, however,” Broughton said, and added quickly: “Let me illustrate with an example. Suppose that you are in your room. You hear a knocking at the door; you come down to look about you. The house appears deserted. What do you do, Gremot? Ignore the visitor, or invite him in?”
Honoré shrugged, not having meant to. But, no doubt, the scenario came readily to hand. He had seen visitors wearing various uniforms of the Prussian army, who spoke only among themselves, enter his room―as they did at liberty―and warm their hands at the stove. They viewed Honoré as they would any prisoner. Although he was a human presence, they did not acknowledge him.
Other visitors were locals, arriving in their ordinary dress, holding hats before their hearts, apprehensive coming forward to peer across the desk. Often, Honoré had seen one such look over his shoulder through the glass, his face working against some emotion, but showing, when he turned and met the eye of the sergeant, only a conciliatory smile, as he handed across his coins. Documents, permission to travel or to claim property, were exchanged for these.
“My passport has been taken from me.”
Honoré recalled this visitor; this man who’d worn a mud-slicked overcoat, whose hand had ferreted about in some safe inner pocket, until he found, and worked free, a ten franc note, then a second. With dirt blackened fingers he laid these on the desk. The sergeant watched in distaste as they uncurled, and in distaste insistently rebuffed them.
His voice rising, the man slapped his hand on the counter. “It is nothing to you, is it? Some rule you have. You will kill me!”
He swept his paper notes to the floor, paced off a step or two, yanked the door towards himself, and stood…building steam, as Honoré imagined, for another thing he wanted to say. But instead he flung the door shut, with a bang so near shattering the glass that Honoré’s shoulders twitched. The sergeant looked at his watch, making note of the hour; he drew his book closer, and patted around for a pencil.
The visitor gave a snort, pulled the door open a second time, and on exiting, left it to swing closed of its own accord. He made a gesture as he passed the window, miming the striking of a match. Honoré, who would never have let his own temper call attention in this way, felt something towards the stranger that was greater than sympathy…a sort of envy.
Thinking of this, he could see complications in Broughton’s question. These were greater than he had realized. “I could give no information,” he began, finding his way, “but I would not like to refuse help. And then…” Another picture came to mind. “The windows in the front are open to the street. I mean…”
He stopped, thinking he did not phrase this well.
“You mean to say, that one standing outside the house sees the interior quite completely through the windows, they spanning the house-front as they do.”
Honoré nodded. “How foolish it would seem. But then, I understand, I would belong to the house. I would be as though I were at least of the household, if not knowing the business there.”
“Let us say then, that you, unable to conceal your presence from this visitor, and sensibly recognizing the position rather a compromising one, open the door to him. He charges you with an errand. He has brought a letter. He asks that you deliver this letter to Captain Henning. He says that the matter is urgent. Henning himself must take possession of this letter; it cannot be given to another.”
“I know of no one called Captain Henning…”
Broughton said nothing. This, Honoré realized, was part of his conjectural quandary. No one in the house did he know by name, only his own visitors, Broughton and Bellet. He trusted Bellet implicitly; Broughton, somewhat less so. “I must say to this man…say, I cannot account for this letter, unless you will point to me who I am to give it to…”
He was winding himself along a dissatisfying pathway. With a palms-up gesture, Honoré looked across at Broughton.
“Well. Your thinking is not entirely unsound. The man would likely leave you, taking his letter with him. He would suspect you were not the easiest of marks; yet, Gremot, consider that he has provided you with a piece of information. You may use this to obtain a second piece of information. How might you do so?”
In silence, Honoré pondered. Finally, he said, “Do you expect…” He was not addressing Broughton, but working out the stringing of these words by which he would question the visitor. “That Captain Henning would be gone, when you came with your letter? When do you always find him here?”
Broughton sighed, as one who has studied a chessboard for several minutes and at last discovered his move. “Now, do you believe that you can bear that sort of thing in mind? There are those who never do well. There are those who, given time, will grope their way out of darkness…but you must learn to keep a weather eye, Gremot. You must adapt yourself to circumstance.”
They heard their host descend. “Madame Freneau,” Biencourt said, “you stand in my way.”
Mme Freneau said something rather shocking for a woman of her age, a servant speaking to her master. A sound of tussling came from the staircase. She appeared with a box and a bottle. She glanced at Broughton, shaking her head only slightly. She eyed Honoré, and motioned.
This was proper, he understood, for he was junior to the company, and she was a woman…
He got to his feet, lifting the empty tray from the table, holding it for her, that she might set her things down. In French, she confided, “He will carry these, and he can barely walk on the stairs. He will certainly fall.”
“You have done your work, now leave us.”
Biencourt shooed Mme Freneau with his hands.
“I will leave, and you will fetch your own glasses. Or, you would like me to bring them first?”
At the threshold, she added, “You old man. It is nothing to you, is it?”
Honoré, despite being so recently admonished by Broughton, could not help himself. He turned to see the expression on her face…but she had disappeared. And when, self-conscious, he sat forward, he found Biencourt smiling.
The box held cigars, the bottle, cognac.
Such largesse had not come Honoré’s way since since Tweedloe’s lunch at the Saint-Omer. Broughton, however, allowing their host to pour once, cut him off. Biencourt had been on the verge of refilling Honoré’s glass when Broughton’s hand sliced the air.
He resumed his seat. “And what do you say about the little painting?”
“I think it has some technique. It looks quickly done, but I don’t believe so…I have never painted with oils, because I have never had money to afford them.”
The painting had affected him in a way he could not confess, like some cruelty; and the general could not have meant it so. But Honoré’s lot was cast with these practitioners. He must now, as he had told Müller, make his living his business. Broughton encouraged a skewed perspective, a view of the world that was like a broken bone, badly knit. The world of this little painting, forever a springtime just past…felt both remembered and unreachable. Honoré was sorry he’d seen it. He was not an artist, after all. He was no one. He would be sent to do Tweedloe’s tasks; by the task, he would be paid. If he ran afoul, he might or might not be valued enough to be saved.
“Pictures,” Biencourt said, “do not suit all tastes. What do you say, Broughton? Will these articles answer?”
“Provided, although I make no unreasonable demands, that the quantity is sufficient.”
By the late afternoon hour at which they returned, the rain was settled in, pelting their faces under lowered hat brims. Honoré felt fatigued and chilled through. He lagged behind Broughton, whose occasional comments he no longer answered. When their house was paces away, Broughton sped, fishing out his key.
And waiting, stepped back, to take Honoré by the elbow. “I apologize. This day has been rather more eventful than I had anticipated.”
For an unknown time, after Broughton had helped him to his cot, and buried him in comforters, Honoré dozed. He came half-awake to a darkened room, hearing the stove’s door open and close, and yielded again to a muddle-headed drowsiness. Broughton and Bellet were speaking; Bellet’s voice shifted from a distant, dream-like murmur, to a question, one Honoré was able to make out. It would cost something extra, Bellet said, that was all…but would Tweedloe refuse?
“It is, at the moment, of no consequence. Tweedloe is in London. He sends word that he wishes to see this or that…however, he will trust my judgment. I am here and he is not. I am the only one with practical knowledge.”
“Do you ride?” Broughton asked.
A lie to this must cause either one, or another sort of trouble. Honoré gave the frank and simple answer: “No.”
In earliest childhood he had lived on a farm, but all his life otherwise had been spent the city, dodging and shying from horse carts and omnibuses, as he made his way about on foot. He had been lucky in his education; he’d had (for the few years he was able to tolerate such luck) mingled with the social class above his own—but he was not of that class. Gentlemen were taught to ride. Farmers’ sons learned to be easy around large animals. Honoré was neither, and frightened of horses. This, he would not tell Broughton.
“Well. I’ve considered the matter, and it can’t be helped. We cannot place our hopes on hiring conveyance cross-country… Really, Gremot, you needn’t look so miserable. There are only four things, that I know of, about riding. You must control the animal’s head, you must keep a proper seat, you must learn to mount and to dismount. That is not so much. Horses can be had for next to nothing, at present…I will find someone to give you lessons. It will occupy your time.”
They had already begun finding ways to occupy his time. Captain Henning, Honoré learned, was not a fiction. Whereas before, only Broughton and Bellet had ever spoken to him, a change of policy soon occurred. Two days after his visit to Biencourt’s house, and when he again felt well, Honoré resumed his usual place on the steps. Visitors arrived. The sergeant conducted his business, giving, as was his habit, no sign he knew Honoré to be there. Lulled by the movements of passersby on the street, Honoré fell into a reverie.
This was broken by the sound of footsteps. The sergeant had left his post.
“I am Unteroffizier Emil Hartmann,” he said to Honoré. “You will forgive my English; I cannot speak French to you. You are the friend of Herr Broughton, the man who visits.”
“Yes, Monsieur Hartmann.” Honoré stood and gave his name.
“I know your name. I ask for your help.”
Hartmann motioned towards his vacated chair. “Tell visitors,” he said, “you may have none…but tell the one who comes, no one is here today. He must return tomorrow, in the afternoon. However, anyone who comes will sign the book.”
Hartmann promised he would be gone for only a few hours. The house would then be locked.
Sitting in the sergeant’s chair was much like sitting on the steps. An hour or so went by, and no one came. Honoré, gone dormant watching traffic, sat up abruptly when the door opened. He had not noticed the man’s approach. The visitor wore riding boots to the knee; a cloak covered his uniform.
“What are you doing here?”
For an instant Honoré felt cowed, as though caught shirking an actual job. He recollected himself, using only the words he had been told to say. “Monsieur, no one is in this house to help. Tomorrow in the afternoon, someone will be here.”
“Why do you sit here, where an officer is meant to be on duty, and tell me this? What is your name?”
These two questions, he took in order. “Monsieur, I have been asked to do this small job. My name is Honoré Gremot.”
“Who asked you to do this?”
Having nothing against Emil Hartmann, and knowing nothing of Hartmann’s errand, Honoré said, “Monsieur, I do not have that information to give.”
“I am Henning. Will you write that down?”
“I am not able to write well. Please, monsieur le capitaine…Herr Hauptmann…I must ask that you write your own name.”
Henning seemed to suspect him of illiteracy. He shook his head, drawing the ink pot closer. Honoré handed up to him the visitors’ book. With no further word, Henning left.
Hartmann returned, when the room had grown nearly dark, and Honoré had begun to wonder if he must assume the additional responsibility of lighting lamps. The sergeant dismissed him without thanking him. The next day, Hartmann was at his post. Visitors came and left; the incident might not have occurred. If Henning’s displeasure had redounded upon Hartmann, Honoré saw no evidence of it.
Down a cobbled street, slippery underfoot from the morning’s rain, he followed Michelet, his riding instructor. Michelet talked all the while. “What I have to teach you is not so much. I know you are one of those who learns by watching and listening. Ha! Now…”
He spun, caught Honoré by the sleeve and tugged him ahead. The skirts of his greatcoat flapping, Michelet then moved nimbly past a wagon, while Honoré, disoriented by this maneuver, stalled; on consideration, he picked his way around the wagon’s rear, keeping his head and feet well clear of the beast that pulled it.
His wiry guide had far outpaced him.
Honoré, though Broughton exercised him daily, had not walked so great a distance. But he jogged now, winding himself, to the bottom of a lane. He thought he’d seen Michelet climb a shattered foundation, and cross into the open parlor of a derelict house. If this were his idea of a shortcut—
But no, it was their destination. Under its caved-in roof, green-striped paper still covered the walls; these at their full height met at one corner to form with the roof’s slump, a lean-to shelter. Two horses were stabled inside.
Honoré found Michelet speaking.
“…told me that I must not tire you with these lessons. Monsieur Gremot, I have chosen for you a very elderly horse. Take this rope.”
His hand moved to grip Honoré’s sleeve, as though he’d never released it, drawing him to the white snout of a horse. His finger appeared between this and Honoré’s eyes, pointing to a dirt alley that ran behind the ruin. “You will take her there.”
And with this expectation, he went at speed through the cavity that served this side as an egress. His white-knuckled hand jerking at the rope, Honoré settled ahead a foot, then tried another. He was startled to find himself shoved into Michelet’s back, by a blow that had come from behind. Michelet pulled his disarranged hat from his head, screwed it back on, and put his face in Honoré’s. “Monsieur! You are not leading a dog.”
The creature, having developed this forward momentum, parted the two of them, crowding Honoré, who at once flung away the rope, aside, nudging Michelet onto the grass.
“You must not face the tail. Think of what you have learned.”
Honoré put his foot in the stirrup. For a moment, he felt he had got the trick.
“Monsieur! Do you have the reins in your left hand?”
Honoré looked at his left hand. “No, monsieur.”
“Where is your right foot?”
He looked again. He tried a smile. “In the stirrup, Monsieur Michelet.”
“And where is your right hand?”
His right hand, at present, rested on a bone that seemed to protrude above the horse’s shoulder, or what Honoré, lacking the equine lore of his instructor, called her shoulder. He looked askance, over his own. Honoré had seen his tutor’s temper provoked, and knew his highly-strung manner when giving vent to it. To see Michelet so labored in self-restraint made Honoré nervous.
Michelet held his arms tight at his sides, and snapped his fingers. “Please, monsieur, come stand next to me.”
Honoré obeyed. Michelet, at once seizing him by the collar and belt of his coat, walked him to the horse, and turned him towards her tail. He resented both the treatment, and these unnecessary mystifications. He had been told a moment ago to face in the other direction.
Yet he would speak patiently to Michelet. “You have asked me to remember your instructions. But my impression, monsieur…”
“Yes, I have been telling you what to do with your hands and with your feet. Will you put your foot in the stirrup? Your left foot?”
Honoré stood stymied, and Michelet caught him by the wrist, kneed him forward, saying in a rapid undertone, “Your left foot in the stirrup. Will you take the reins? And what have I told you about her mane?”
Michelet had told him she would be calmed (whereas Honoré was certain she would bite) if he twisted a strand from her mane around the hand that held the reins. The left hand, he reminded himself. Remembering nothing else, he wrapped the leather around his left hand and tested his weight against his right.
Broughton, in ticking off his cursory list, had not thought of this difficulty. Neither had Honoré, able himself to visualize nothing about mounting to the saddle, taken into account his damaged right arm. He pushed onto his toes, repeated the trial three times, cast Michelet a foolish smile, and feared, by Michelet’s sullen eye, that his instructor disbelieved in the earnestness of his effort.
But it was well to hope. “You will tell Monsieur Broughton it is impossible for me to ride.” Honoré gave a shrug. He had not avoided a certain uptick in his voice. Broughton’s was the civilizing influence that kept Michelet’s ire in check. Or it was, at any rate, the promise of Broughton’s money.
“Monsieur Gremot. If your right arm will not serve, you must tell me. I cannot guess these things. You must please move to her off-side…yes, to the other side. You will do everything I have taught you exactly opposite.”
Sheltered from Michelet’s precipitate corrections by the horse between them, Honoré at last sorted the mechanics of hands and feet, and clambered onto her back. He clung at this uneasy height, tenacious fingers woven into her mane, his weight on the bridle in a way Michelet deplored.
“You must stop that at once!”
Gripping the fabric of Honoré’s coat, Michelet yanked him upright in the saddle, then went round her head and tail, shoving each foot into place. He circled a second time, positioning Honoré’s heels in the stirrups.
“Down, so, pay attention.”
He started her at a lazy walking pace, a light touch on Mignonne’s harness, one finger under the leather strap around her snout, giving small caresses. He had dubbed the horse with this courtesan’s name, and without question she was a jade. “She is an unhealthy creature, she will soon go to the knacker…more likely the butcher. Still, we ask her to serve us amiably, and so we owe to her some small respect. She has only the faults of hard use and hunger. Any of us might be taught to bite or kick. I am not guiding her, monsieur. You are in command. Hold the reins loosely.”
This worrisome biting and kicking aside, the ride struck Honoré alike to the top of an omnibus, when crowded. The jostle back and forth had a lull to it. After all, one might acquire an insouciance at this sort of thing…
He ignored whatever Michelet was telling him about straightening his back, using his legs to balance, and managed to do so anyway. He nearly daydreamed a riding costume for himself that would impress…
His tutor stepped aside, and in a grudge-bearing way said, “To the end of the lane, and stop there.”
Nothing occurred. Honoré kicked his heels and tugged the reins. Michelet made no comment, but fell back and smacked Mignonne smartly on the flank. She danced a series of quick steps, slowed to a stoic plod, twitching her right ear all the while, and veering left, as though this irritation steered her like a tiller.
Her rider held to an uneasy equilibrium, lurched badly turning to see Michelet shrink in his wake, lurched again righting himself…and saw that the lane came to a dip ahead, crossing a drainway, on the other side of which ran a street, its cobbles pitching up like teeth. In panic he discovered Broughton had omitted another thing. He would like very much to dismount; but could not, to accommodate this hope, make Mignonne arrest herself.
She might have a “hard mouth” as Michelet said…it seemed to Honoré she laughed at him. He pulled to the left, the right; finally, he pulled with both hands.
“Take charge!” Michelet called out.
Honoré backed all his weight against the reins. Mignonne began to trot. She made the corner, choosing course as her own discretion advised, a further surprise that caused him to lose his balance altogether. He was shocked by the speed at which the ground seemed to rise. It knocked him breathless, jarring places that still gave pain.
Shouting belated warnings, Michelet hurried to crouch at his side.
“Ha! Monsieur, they say there is a right way to fall off a horse! But, to suppose we have not discovered the only skill that comes naturally to you…that this time you are only lucky…do not twist your foot in the stirrup. And when you have retrieved your boot, lace it properly.”
With morose anxiety Michelet studied him do so. “We will stop for the day.”
“No, no. Never mind what Broughton tells you.”
They had barely begun. Honoré by now had gained some inkling of that phrase Broughton used…if, in this “having something to say for himself”, he could parrot Michelet’s vocabulary with a show of knowledge and confidence, he might escape being given many of Michelet’s lessons.
“As you prefer, monsieur. But you must take control of your mount.”
Dragging himself in the direction of his instructor’s pointing finger, Honoré ducked his head well in advance of closing on Mignonne, and scuttled pace by pace until he neared her neck. Twice he darted a hand at the dangling rein. She was a lowly creature, but her new master controlled her with such cowed ineptitude, as to strengthen her resolve. A vine leaf shielded from frost near a fence-post had retained a bit of green…
And this human pest fingering at her halter, soon was sent scrambling by a blow from her flank. Michelet strolled up. “If you will stop those movements, monsieur. Go stroke her nose and speak to her. And remember it is your right foot.”
More prudent their second go, Michelet kept a hand on the saddle pommel, and as he walked Honoré up and down the lane, told his story. “I was born at Beaupré, in Quebec. Of a very respectable mother, monsieur. Now. I made the best living I could in those days, before―”
He began again. “You see, I worked in the logging camps…it has been not quite ten years, I was at the town of St. John. St. John, monsieur, is far from my old home, perhaps as far as your town of Huy from Paris…at the fort there, I saw they had been putting up placards. They asked for men to join the militias. This was at the time of the American war. I will confess to you, that in my childhood, I was taught to read. Books had filled my mind with falsehoods, with stories of spies and smugglers, and I had a hope of seeing action, of doing some great thing.
“The army sent me to the outpost of Tobique. It is a dangerous, rough place, Tobique, full of the bastard Indians. But for me, for knowing from the camps the patois of the métis…they decided I could best serve on sentry duty, and take the watch that began at midnight. I was a dog to them, monsieur…and if they had a bad job that no one wanted, that job was Michelet’s. At times there was a moon, I could use my glass; if a pirogue or a flatboat passed on the river, I noted down what I saw―the number of men aboard her, her location when she appeared, and when she passed from sight.
“You see how I wasted my time in the English uniform! My old work paid me better, and with the horses I was trusted to know my business…I was not given five chores, stopped before I could start the first…then told I would never be promoted because I would not listen to orders! That is a thing about Canada that I know, and that you would not know, Monsieur Gremot.”
Continued from “would not know”
“You left the militia and went back to the camp.”
Michelet, his free hand mid-gesture, his attention preoccupied with his complaints, stumbled here, dropped his other hand from the saddle and stepped back, staring up at Honoré; Honoré, turning to see what had troubled Michelet, swayed and nearly fell―to reinforce a lesson already learned. He made himself fall instead over the horse’s neck, and held fast to her, feeling unequal to the challenge of regaining his seat.
“Why should you say so? Ha!”
Michelet caught up and tugged the bridle, bringing Mignonne to a halt.
“This is near enough the end of the lane. I’ll turn you here…but you had better sit up. No, of course I went back. Let me think, then, what I’ve told Mr. Broughton already, and I will make my story short for you!”
Honoré thought of Michelet’s dropping Huy into the conversation earlier, and with some indignation reminded himself that he had been sanguine in the face of this device and had let it pass. Broughton hadn’t told him much of anything about Michelet; a chance remark―to unfortunate effect―seemed to have hit on the truth.
“I went back. I was told no teamster was needed. François Labelle, a man who had made himself agreeable to the boss, and who could do any job in the camp…because he had made a study of them all, you see…LaBelle and his brother…yes, and his brother, had taken over my work. But the cook wanted a second man. And as I had given up my place, I must be happy to scrub pots and haul water. So…you have heard of good things coming to ashes!”
This was a joke, Honoré hazarded to suppose…
He laughed, but cautiously, for diplomacy’s sake; he would prefer being liked by Michelet, if they must spend so many hours together. His “ah-heh” drew only a narrow glance.
“I watched these Labelles make themselves slow at the work I had done single-handed, make enough of it to double their wages.”
“But this is good, is it not? So long as you did the work, the boss,” (he used Michelet’s word) “got on well enough with only one of these drivers, but when you were gone…”
“No, no! One driver…I suppose they may have as many drivers as they like.”
The shrug, to do justice to Honoré’s ignorance, required the elaboration of moving to one side, bending his elbows at the waist, and spreading both hands palms up. “But, let me tell you…the roads are narrow, and the loads the horses drag to the river are heavy. Heavy as siege guns. Where the leading team is under good control, the next will follow—as horses naturally do, you know.”
Honoré declined prompting him further, when he was in this mood; and Michelet, after a hiatus, spoke on. “I suppose you have never heard of the Irish invasion…the Fenians?”
“I have, monsieur, but only to hear of, not to know.”
Some members of Honoré’s socialist club who had anarchist leanings, and without any of them having met an Irishman, considered the Fenian rebels brothers in spirit, admirable in action against the British Crown.
But Michelet’s point had not been political. “This was the time when the militia was called up again, to protect the forts and the arsenals. I was in the province of New Brunswick; here I was given command of a mounted patrol, and made sergeant. You may take this as a caution. I had never been an ambitious man… It was this, this blandishment! That changed my heart and made me want what I should not have. You are a soldier, monsieur?”
Michelet looked up at him, his pinched face working with unaccustomed animation. But what he had been on the verge of saying, he chose not to say. “I am thirty-six, near forty years of age. I began to believe I would never see a rise in rank. I have family in Montmartre, my grandmother and some cousins. A man I had met…whose name makes no difference…told me that war between France and Prussia would certainly come. For a man like me, he said, this was a great chance for glory, for reward. He himself meant to go! He knew of one who would pay officers to join the reserves. As I have come to know…”
He reached for, and in confidence, clamped a hand on Honoré’s arm. “This man was a liar. But I have his name. I fought at the first battle of Metz and was taken prisoner. I was herded, monsieur, in with so many others…they said to be exchanged. And here, I have no passport, no money, nothing. I cannot reach my family. I cannot pay for rail fare. The French army, when they learn I am a paid soldier of Canada, will do nothing for me. I sleep in the ditch, monsieur! I ask for help, and no one helps me. Had it not been that I know something of horses, and can do some work in the stable, in this same ditch I would have been found dead from starvation. You may think about that.”
Michelet was the visitor for whom Honoré had felt sympathy, the one who had thrown his worthless paper notes on the floor. He was pleased Michelet had found employment, but he did not need this story as a caution.
He had learned its lesson.
To his friend Gilbert, Honoré said, “I will go to Paris.”
Gilbert shrugged. “I don’t see how you’ll afford it. What would be the use, anyway?”
“War, Gilbert, the greatest news in the world! Everyone says France will fight. If we had even one story that no one else had…and there must be hundreds of stories…we would be taken seriously. Or, think, we might sell the paper, if anyone believed the Progressiste was worth something. We would have money.”
“Then go. Go now.”
Gilbert composed one of the letters, taking the editorial staff of the Progressiste to task for its erroneous reporting. Generating false controversy was a strategy, however, that held in check the paper’s prospects. Honoré found it possible more worldly men of the journalistic milieu guessed what he and Gilbert were about.
His friend did not believe in his Paris scheme, but with an expressive gesture, as though he held a coffer between his two hands, Honoré pleaded his cause. “I will use our allowance for expenses to pay for my travels.”
“That sounds very grand. We don’t have an allowance.”
“We soon will. And if you give me a start…I mean, tell your father that the rent is late… You know I can’t ask my father for money. But, I will pay you back.”
Beginning with Gilbert’s contribution, Honoré had put together a modest pool of borrowed funds. And with this seed money, had done what his father could not forgive. He had visited a moneylender. To Honoré, the logic seemed unimpeachable; the usual way, after all, in which one began a venture, was to obtain capital.
M. Eckhold proved warm and encouraging, not in the least the villain Honoré had been led to expect. He advised his client to budget largely.
As with all borrowers, Honoré took delight in the illusion of wealth. He at once accosted the startled Gilbert. “You see!” Merely for emphasis, he jangled his pocketbook in Gilbert’s face. “You may soon expect dispatches from Paris.”
He disliked his friend’s silence.
Gilbert could afford to show himself happy…they were partners, and Honoré had borrowed the money for both their sakes. He turned his back and pulled open his drawer of their shared bureau. “I would leave you something for expenses, which you don’t believe in, but the sensible answer will be to wait until I have lived there for a week or two…”
Gilbert put a hand on Honoré’s arm, stopping his rummaging among old sketchbooks and the boxes in which he organized his fragments of pastels. “Please change your mind. You know why I say it.”
He saw with some wonder that his friend’s troubled eyes did not express the whole of his worries. Gilbert stood frowning, opened his mouth as though they had already begun to argue…but held his tongue. Honoré then saw the light of a hopeful thought soften his expression. “You know they have the smallpox in Paris now. You will have to take the vaccination if you mean to go.”
This was underhand.
Honoré shoved shut the drawer and smacked the back of his fingers against his palm, in a way his father might have done. “If you know so much, you must know they will give you anything to swallow, just to make themselves richer, these doctors. They inoculate you when you are well…then you become ill, and die all the same! Besides, Gilbert, who have you ever known, who has had this…”
He preferred not to speak the name aloud.
“…been sick with this?”
These purported cures were brewed from the offal of the abattoir; he had learned this from his friend Dogneaux, who with a wise look, said also, “Someone is making money.” (Honoré had heard another account, one he thought too outlandish to be quite true, that the blood of an infected person was let and mingled with that of the patient.)
“Of course, I’ve forgotten your sister! I’m sorry, Honoré.” Gilbert reddened. “But I only mean to say…I think it’s not safe for you, going off alone.”
If anything, Honoré bore less specific regard for the dead Mme Feriet’s memory than did his friend generally for the rule of de mortuis. Rather, the point he’d been about to make was Dogneaux’s, that in fanning rumor there might be profit or political gain…if so, the epidemic’s toll had been exaggerated, one could depend on it.
But now he’d seen Gilbert’s embarrassment, Honoré was tempted to thwart him at this pass instead, thus to have no more talk of illness.
“Consider that my father went away to Liège, to bury madame and monsieur…”
He paused. “And consider…that he never told us he’d done it, not for a year afterwards.”
He paused again. So far, these statements amounted to mere repetition; he was not building much of an argument…and having adopted the scheme on short notice, surprised himself now with the direction his thoughts were taking. His father had gone away one day, early in the morning, without telling this to Honoré and Claudette; he had on that day visited a place where disease was rife. He had returned an hour shy of midnight. He had shown no concern of catching smallpox, or of carrying it home to his children.
His son could not have said if M. Gremot were made reticent by grief, by a humiliated secrecy…or by anger.
“Not for a year afterwards?”
“No. Gilbert…” He ended curtly, withdrawing his pocketbook for a second time, handling it with formal deliberation. “Let me, after all, pay my debt to you.”
He had hurt and worried his friend, but his own spirits needed only a day to recover. While shopping for necessities he would normally have done without, Honoré discharged two or three other of his small debts, to sponsors he’d happened to meet. And bought, with Gilbert in mind, a Ste-Geneviève medal for luck in her city, a St-Martin for protection from smallpox. He rewarded himself, as well, with a thing unknown in his sphere: a first class rail ticket.
“Now, when you arrive in Paris…”
Dogneaux, found in his cellar bent over his workbench, sat showing his teeth for quite some minutes. He lifted an unused type case, stirred his fingers through its chaos of blocks, brushes, pencil stubs, inky strips of rag; he picked out a fountain pen, shimmied loose a paper from the bottom of a stack held in place by a detached crank handle. And all the while his eyes were on his trembling thumbs, and the whistling noise he made through this fixed grin was a sign of vexation…but, perhaps, with someone else. Dogneaux still smiled on Honoré, and had been so far interested and helpful.
“You will get on best with a letter of recommendation, from a professional gentleman above reproach.”
Honoré did not think of Dogneaux as a professional gentleman, and knew one or two who would reproach him. He moved closer, and Dogneaux lifted his elbow as he plied his pen, lowering his head to block the view.
“Your father is happy to be seeing you off?”
“I think he is.”
“Here now.” Lifting his composition to the light. “I hold young Gremot in such esteem, that it would astonish me to find him capable of any act that might lessen my opinion of him. For this reason, I have not doubted the wisdom of investing my own funds in the Progressiste.”
This was untrue. Honoré was visiting that day (he would be leaving in the early morning) to give back, without interest, the nine francs and six centimes he’d watched Dogneaux dig for him out of Mme Dogneaux’s apron pocket. Dogneaux had clasped his hand, told him they were square, joked he would not have lied to his wife if he’d known Honoré could turn a profit so quickly…
He offered now, two fingers in a scissors grip at the letter’s top edge, a mimicry of a clerk’s mannerisms—that Honoré suspected to be aimed at his father. And shrugged, as Honoré read the letter through, discovering the printer’s game.
“No one in Paris will take the trouble to write Monsieur Sarrazin. If they do, your father will be sacked, maybe.”
This, although he was certain they’d parted for life, was a satisfaction Honoré would not have wished on his father. But Dogneaux wished it. By the confounding habit of fate, M. and Mme Dogneaux, and M. Gremot, having never for years of propinquity come to know one another, seemed since the day Honoré’s crisis had brought them together, to cross paths with an unhappy frequency. When Honoré’s father came late from his work, he met Dogneaux, setting off for his own. His wife, who’d nursed Honoré through a bout of pleurisy, made her willingness to be hired for such employment known all along their street. With her friendly way of passing the time of day, Mme Dogneaux let M. Gremot know how generous and unsuspicious his good neighbors were.
The Dogneaux were a thorn in M. Gremot’s side, and he in theirs. He, unmoved in his belief they had made a job for themselves, by letting his son fall ill; they, feeling Honoré’s father had cheated them of wages.
He had agreed, in that year of his first illness, to live once more under his father’s roof. M. Gremot had requested it, ending the estrangement that was the culmination of their first falling out.
Honoré no longer attended school. School was a bourgeois construct…and the times demanded action. There was far too much to be done with one’s hours. His father, learning, and having none of this, railed at him daily for a month, backhanding him across the shoulders each time he entered their room and found Honoré hunched over his writing. The tempest passed, and M. Gremot said no more.
A year passed, and he kept silent.
His father’s sympathies, Honoré felt, were essentially royalist, despite the hardness of his life; despite the many things a status quo friendly only to the propertied class had stripped from M. Gremot’s hands. The revolution would benefit Papa…as Honoré expected himself to benefit from it. But his father ought to understand this, ought to appreciate that the dawn of a new social order glimmered on Europe’s horizon, and that witnesses would be needed to record the upheaval.
In defiance, he littered his corner of the bedroom; he had got even the walls ink-stained, and allowed his papers to spill and mound into random stacks on the floor around his chair.
“This is not a trade, this pamphleteering of yours!”
More than once, unable to browbeat his son into neater habits, M. Gremot added to the squalor by sweeping his fist across the desk, clearing it of Honoré’s writings-in-progress, along with the candle stub and the ink pot. His father lacked respect for the work of a journalist. He was steeped in conventionality, despite Honoré’s leaving a number of articles centered on his small table, for the good of his father’s education―
And for M. Gremot, these insults at last had gone too far.
“Why should I put up with it?”
Honoré discounted the possibility that his father had meant something by this, these words uttered as he walked through the door, home from his club’s Thursday meeting. His pockets had been emptied afterwards at Servier’s father-in-law’s tavern. The hour was nine, so the mantel clock told him. His father was in the sitting room, working in his curved-back chair, himself half rolled to the edge of his desk, half-turned to cock his head at Honoré.
He fixed his son with a sour glare. Honoré squinted back.
In his opinion, his father ought not do this work, copying these documents he carried home from M. Sarrazin’s office. As Sarrazin paid to his senior clerk only regular wages, Papa did this for nothing; and worked for nothing because he believed that to hold his place, he must.
Shutting himself behind the bedroom door, Honoré felt out his candle, which was not there. He found his father’s, wheeled from the sill on which it must be placed, and started at the barrenness of his table. His books were gone. No. These, he found, had been stacked on the chair. But his papers had vanished.
The room was small, and furnished with only these pieces, his table and chair, the trunk, and the bed shared by Honoré and his father. He knelt. He shuffled his hands through the clothing in the trunk, lifted the dangling quilt. He went back to the sitting room.
“No! Why do I put up with it? If you hate me, leave my house! I understand…”
M. Gremot rose from his chair. “That you hand these things out on the street. You will have me sacked, and we will both be on the street! How dare you mention my employer…how dare you mention me! Who teaches you to be so vindictive and so lazy?”
Retreating to the armchair by the grate, Honoré saw what had become of his papers. The last scraps were mixed there among the ashes. He had not written about M. Gremot; he had not written about M. Sarrazin. And…vindictive…how his father could talk of it! Honoré knew very well never to touch his father’s desk.
He allowed the cadence of M. Gremot’s voice to blend with hoof beats, and the rumble of a street cleaner’s cart heard through the window; and the always present clatter of other lodgers, the shouts and thuds of their arguments.
He barricaded his mind against these recriminations, trying to compose again one of his lost screeds, one in which (to himself he admitted it) he’d used his father as an example:
…a man of his type, playing his role of valet to the petit bourgeoisie, who will share with him none of their spoils; yet, he is too deeply entrenched in collaboration with his exploiters to be freed by anything other than the shock of insurrection…
Lost in thought, he ignored his father…but suddenly felt the cushioned chair back sink at the pressure of fingertips. His father jostled him. Inflamed by this physical act, he shook the chair a second time, with force enough to send Honoré to his knees.
He stepped to the door and flung it open. “Go! Get your living as a beggar! That way, you will have some idea of what a living is!”
Honoré, trembling, but not hurrying, got to his feet.
His father came back and caught him by the sleeve. He jerked his arm free. M. Gremot took a more spiteful hold on the fabric, twisting it; Honoré, his greater resentment flaring into rage, backed away, flinging his arm to loose it from his father’s grip. His father seized, and punishingly drilled fingers into, the wrist of the hand that had nearly struck him…this time, with his other hand, Honoré did strike him, smacking his palm against his father’s shoulder. M. Gremot retaliated in kind, slapping Honoré on the cheek.
Grappling with his father in this strange manner, he found himself harried over the threshold. And saw, as he stood on the landing, the door slam closed…heard the neighbor’s, across from their own, shudder in its frame.
But these had been only words, his father said later. He had not meant them.
Again, Honoré sat by the grate. His father had paid for coal enough to build a fire that would smolder through the day. He would rather his father had helped him to sit by the window, so that he might open it, when his father had gone. He had not then become accustomed to his own uncleanliness. He was sweating in the dim, close room. Yet for three days it had rained, and M. Gremot believed damp air to be unwholesome.
“But, you understand, I was disappointed. I had not cast you out, Honoré. Your friend Dogneaux told me you’d said so, and that was wrong of him.”
Dogneaux was the club’s self-appointed minister of public instruction.
He assumed this title for pragmatic reasons…because he rented the cellar below his apartment, and because in this cellar he kept a small press. Common sense demanded, then, that he print the club’s notices, and its propaganda. He had a family to feed, and in the way of his topsy-turvy existence, his avocation filled his days. At the fall of evening, Dogneaux began earning his wages as a lamplighter.
He had taken a number of Honoré’s sketches, and had not paid for them, but promised that when he could afford to have them engraved on blocks, he would use them to illustrate the newspaper he did not yet have the wherewithal to publish. As well as Honoré’s artwork, Dogneaux praised his writing, and reaped the benefit in willing donations. M. Gremot’s opinion was one…but Jean-Romain Sevier, the club’s president, had traveled both to St. Petersburg and London; he had been nearly elected delegate (had been mentioned, in any case, as a possibility) to the upcoming congress of the Workers’ International; and what Citizen Sevier thought mattered, as what M. Gremot thought did not.
Dogneaux was not a particular friend, of the sort upon whom Honoré would fearlessly have imposed—a roof over one’s head was after all a great favor to ask. But he had sought Dogneaux, knowing where at this hour the lamplighter might be found―and thought it reasonably clever to make a joke of his troubles.
“Because as a beggar I will not be welcome anyplace; whereas, being political, I can put up placards only where they are permitted. Therefore, if I am to be driven away for begging, I may beg on the better streets with more profit, and with no worse consequence. Also then, I may leave behind at least a leaflet.”
Dogneaux sat, in an upstairs room, with Sevier, and with Sevier’s father-in-law, who would not give Honoré beer…on principle, rather than because he had no means of paying for it.
“I must have been overgenerous with young Gremot this evening.” He spoke to Sevier. “He left my house spoiling for a fight, it seems. Now you will tell me I am at fault. You will ask me to find some job for him to do, and I have nothing.”
His friends, too, had offered him neither a tankard nor a seat. Dogneaux shrugged, and sank in his own, his boot heels skidding in two directions across the floor. “Help us sort Sevier’s dilemma first.”
“By rights,” Sevier addressed Dogneaux, “any man who attends the congress should be free to come and go as he pleases. I would like to see them call themselves socialists, and then begin making classes…the privileged ones who are permitted through the door, and the common rabble shut out. Can they have the nerve to turn me away?”
“Then you will go to Geneva?” Honoré asked.
This was hopeful. He’d thought of none of the things Sevier’s father-in-law had teased—or warned―him about. He had not been drunk; he would not have blamed the tavern-keeper if he had been, and he did not expect to be given work. But…could he not assist Sevier in some way, travel with him to Geneva?
“No.” Dogneaux quashed this fantasy. “He is not going. Unless you’ve by chance shaken loose your father’s purse.”
A few dozen regulars, artists and writers, middle-class students, misfits of the people’s cause who belonged to no trades union, no philosophers’ salon, belonged to Sevier and Dogneaux. It seemed to Honoré that here small donations might be canvassed…their leader’s reports from Geneva would confer status on them all.
“Well…do you think a subscription, Dogneaux?”
The Minister sat up taller, put his feet on the table, and tilted his chair until its back struck the wall. “Do you want to know why?”
He waited; and Honoré, expecting to be disappointed, nodded.
“Because Sevier will then have a moral debt, as you may think of it, to every subscriber. He is one man, and they number, we will say for the sake of argument—as we have not tried polling the members to learn how popular Sevier really is!—fifty. Sevier’s money will no longer be his own, but anyone’s for the asking. Poverty is bad, but obligation is worse.”
“No, Honoré, Dogneaux is right,” Sevier said.
“But then, suppose…”
The obstacle was in the approach. There could be no question of moral debt, if Sevier’s supporters could see themselves as purchasers, making a fair exchange, rather than as donors. He began to outline a new plan, wherein so much could be collected…from the sale of tickets, it might be; and a portion of this gain set aside, as a prize for the winner.
“Honoré would like to organize a lottery. Dogneaux, do you like a lottery? Will it do?”
Dogneaux pressed his lips into a straight line, still meeting Sevier’s eyes with what appeared laughter. “No…I think it won’t. I think the police will twist Honoré’s arm, and he will give our names to them at once.”
Together, they laughed aloud. Sevier then pushed his chair from the table, moved to stand before Honoré, and clapped him on both shoulders. “Go, knock at your father’s door, and beg his forgiveness.” Seeing Honoré’s face, he added, “That is only a matter of practicality. Politics, if you like.”
The steps were outside the house, and these led to a cross-lane at the back, over which the only light that fell came from the tavern’s upper window. He had left them without an answer…but here, bewildered by a deep pool of shadow at the bottom, Honoré hesitated―and was caught by the owl-eyed Dogneaux. While taking Honoré by the elbow, and guiding him to the gate, Dogneaux made a proposition.
“Honoré, I am not wanted yet…and I am off to the cellar anyway to fetch my lamp and stick. I can show you how to work the press, if you would care to learn. And there are one or two chores I will let you take over.”
He’d allowed Honoré the privilege (or chore) of producing nearly all those things for the club, which he printed at no profit to himself. Dogneaux could compete with the newspaper presses on only the smallest of scales, but landed now and again a paying job, a run of advertising handbills, or a small tradesman’s letterhead and business cards. This work he preferred to oversee himself.
And rarely did Dogneaux have a centime to spare for Honoré in payment of wages. On that first night, he’d thrown a blanket over the cellar cot, telling his new lodger: “For the time being, I’ll take service for rent…I don’t mind another pair of eyes looking after things down here.”
Autumn came. The cold that at night began seeping through the walls made Honoré shiver; his discomfort, despite Mme Dogneaux’s extra blankets, leaving him sleepless for hours, and late to rise in the mornings. She clucked over his pallor, and said to him, one November day…after she had called him to breakfast for the second, perhaps for the third, time; after he had pulled himself up the stairs to the kitchen, and dropped into a chair by the stove: “I think you had better go back to your father.”
She put a lilt into her words. She did not insist, only tendered a possibility.
But Honoré, so pleased to have a room of his own, shook his head vehemently, drank from his cup of cocoa…and blinked.
“Cod liver oil,” Mme Dogneaux told him, “puts iron in the blood.”
He would teach himself, also, to do his own engraving.
They would not have the nerve to shut the door against him. Oddly, these words seemed dictated in another’s voice…but what was it he had been telling himself? What mattered most…the phrase he must scribble down, before he’d forgotten it, as soon as he could find the pencil. It occurred to Honoré he’d been trying, over and over, to leave his cot and search for it. No, he had done this. The act flashed back, a picture of himself, pencil in hand, sketching a perfect likeness.
But…why would he have drawn it, his sister’s face, pocked by disease, a thing he’d never seen? But not hers, after all. The face was Feriet’s.
He opened his eyes in the cellar’s blackness. His gift…he had been telling himself, this was what mattered. Because there must be others of his class equally gifted.
Sevier agreed―it was a good saying, and when he addressed the congress, Honoré would permit him the use of it.
“Excellence waits to be mined from the wealth of humanity.”
Continued from “wealth of humanity”
The assembly hall, or it was the lectern that stood on the stage of the hall…but this itself was more a private bar in an upstairs room; but again, more an opera house, draped in red velvet…still again, not a theater really, but a mansion with many rooms. Honoré watched his father from some unexplained height, as his father searched, and called.
“Honoré, where will I find your father?”
When Dogneaux had woken him, finally, he’d felt that he was suffocating.
His father did not cultivate the friendship of neighbors.
M. Gremot’s mood became more than usually anxious and discontented, finding himself beset by so many costs, needing to be away at his work during the day; and it came to pass, that as he finicked over Honoré in the mornings, he grew talkative, inclined to run beyond his point…until once in a while he revealed something.
The doctor would ask his fee. In a show of gratitude, though he felt none, M. Gremot also had given to Dogneaux a few francs. And Dogneaux’s wife had put herself forward, offering to nurse Honoré during his time of helplessness.
“If you know of no one else, you had better have me. But…Honoré has a sister, does he not, Monsieur Gremot?”
“No! No, madame, I am afraid Honoré has only his father. And his father hopes only to spare him from folly. I must be thankful, then, that you and your husband have won my son’s trust―he does not trust me!”
Honoré had merely heard these exchanges; the vision he had of his father’s restrained anger, that could be given vent only through sardonic words, might have been a fevered invention.
“But knowing the ways in which you have helped, Madame Dogneaux, I see no reason to doubt your good will. Why should I not suppose you will offer me a fair price?”
“She wishes me to know,” he confided to Honoré, “that all her family love you, but that they cannot afford to keep you. But again, of what use my money will be to Monsieur and Madame Dogneaux! And all I have put aside―you must realize―is yours, Honoré. They have befriended you so well, they have got their hands on this that I have saved for your future! I blame myself. I had supposed a hard lesson would make you wiser.”
All through this speech, with bursts of unneeded vigor, his father had stoked up the fire, drawn the blanket into a tight cocoon, tucking it at last under Honoré’s chin, until he felt overly hot, thirsty…and longed for M. Gremot to leave.
“Then, Honoré, the doctor, you heard him say it…”
When he had been unwilling to hear these windings that seemed at their conclusion to comfort his father with a sense of having trumped all argument, whether or not any had been offered, Honoré had in the past put a closed door between them. He closed his eyes now, his store of energy quickly exhausted, and began to doze.
“He tells me that your lungs are weak. Do you hear me? Your friend Dogneaux gives you, for three months, a cold bed in his cellar…and when the harm is done, he thinks to come to me. He might have come to me at once! Dogneaux has no money to pay the doctor. And why do we need the doctor?”
Honoré heard Mme Dogneaux test the knob. He heard the door crack open and catch on the rug; he heard her call out, “Honoré, are you there?”
Of course he was…in a moment her head would pop round, and she would see this for herself. But these words had become their conventional noontime exchange.
He laid his newspaper aside. “Madame, please come in.”
On the consideration that a liberal number of their fellow lodgers had entrusted to friends copies of the pass-key, given by their landlord to each in confidence; and that it could not be true this same key opened every door in the house (he had been told so, but would not himself have tried such a thing), M. Gremot had relented to necessity…but he begrudged it, that he must allow Dogneaux’s wife this freedom.
She’d given Honoré his lunch, and while her conversation spun his thoughts into a confused, altered logic, his mind began to drift sleepily. He knew himself to be consulted in his own place of business, yet found that he was seated behind the desk of M. Sarrazin. His costume was the lawyer’s starched shirt-front, pearl studs, and black cravat.
“Your opinions are well-regarded. No one has yet solved this problem of money.”
Across the desk’s burnished span, the men who asked his advice were faceless shadows. Rather than expound his Paris scheme, Honoré found he was putting into words a vague resentment, while uneasily, he was aware of quiet footsteps, the rustle and scent of damp woolen cloth.
“The future,” Honoré told them, “is tomorrow, and the day after. It is not some unthought of time, forever postponed. My father…”
He was a gallery patron viewing his own performance; he was also the speaker, and nervous, in mentioning his father to these strangers. “He would like me to have his money when he is no longer alive to trouble himself.”
A disturbance threw shadow across the light his closed eyes still discerned…his face was touched. At the same time, he heard his father say under his breath, “Well, but if she has been here at all, what has she done?”
Embarrassment tempted Honoré to pretend he was not awake. But he stirred and looked at his father, whose brows were pinched; one deep furrow running from his nostril to the corner of his mouth, in a sour skew of disapprobation. What, Honoré worried―as he pushed with an arm to right himself, finding the other bound tight by his blanket―have I said?
His father gathered newspapers; then, flinging them all away, bent over him, and tugged the blanket free. “Has she been here? Has she given you lunch?” With an impatient exhalation, M. Gremot crossed to the window and pulled it shut. “I might think the room had been ransacked!” In fairness, he should not rebuke Mme Dogneaux for neglecting to keep his house for him, a chore he would not pay her to do.
Honoré had barely used his voice all day; to his own ears it sounded faint and imploring.
“Ah! I ought to speak to Dogneaux. This is no different from stealing.”
“No! I don’t mean to say she was not here.”
“The easier way will be for me to find another arrangement.”
His father’s tone conveyed flat disbelief, as though this lie were one too patent to acknowledge. Any further defense would likely prove decisive, leaving M. Gremot convinced he paid the blameless Mme Dogneaux for nothing.
Instead, Honoré said: “There is an article I wanted to read again. Will you help me find it?”
He had been weighing this problem of money…
The money was his own, after all, Papa had said so. Still, it was no use to ask…he would refuse. Having expressed an opinion, he would then feel persuaded of it. Once M. Gremot’s voice had uttered the word no, it was as though a friend had counselled him―he found the force of the argument sound and undeniable. Honoré knew he could not himself make an obvious suggestion…that his father, feeling burdened by the expense of his son’s fragile health, and infuriated by his political views, could rid himself of both frustrations―
Yet surely it was this present life that mattered.
Surely his father’s unreconciled ghost would not gloat the more happily over the legacy of a few coins that might otherwise have, had they not so tenaciously been saved for Honoré’s future, provided him a better one.
He scorned his father’s need to see with his own eyes whomever he befriended, and learn to what influences his son yielded. But bearing this fault in mind, Honoré calculated his interfering nature would impel him to read these paragraphs, so interesting to Honoré, and over which this secrecy was staged for his benefit.
He must sooner or later offer a remark. One no doubt to the effect that such carnival shows were a great lot of foolishness…but Honoré had rehearsed a speech, and could suit his words to any opening. He was sixteen years old―and so, certainly, if his father did not care to see the Exposition, he could permit Honoré to travel alone to Paris; but also, Honoré had friends other than Dogneaux. Gilbert…Papa might quibble over their being the same age, but he did not dislike Gilbert. And Honoré need only arrive, for he planned (though he would not allow his father to know it) never to return.
He had not thought of this near miracle.
That, unexpectedly, his father’s remark would be: “Honoré, if Monsieur Sarrazin will permit me…I have not yet asked…it will be a great thing to ask, of course. And I expect, taking the journey by train into account, I must have ten days…quite possibly, Monsieur Sarrazin will say he cannot spare me for so long. Therefore, you are not to hope for too much.”
And his father had peered at him, as though fearing an excess of hope might prove unwholesome.
Gauthier Gremot kept his wits about him, and observed, as they made their way to the station on foot, “Paris is somewhat like to Bruxelles; although, it is a strange place, Honoré.”
To ensure they would make their train, and that no accident could prevent their doing so, he’d woken Honoré at daybreak, hours ahead of the 9.05 departure. He had paid to engage a porter, who trailed them now, carting their trunk.
“A cab is out of the question when we have less than an hour’s walk. And these ’buses, Honoré, will stop anywhere.”
His father’s hand was on his coat sleeve, now wrenching with painful insistence, as M. Gremot hurried him past a girl guarded by her chaperone…a girl of his own age, more or less, who blushed and tugged at a bonnet string, when Honoré stared. Relaxing his hold, but not abandoning it, M. Gremot added: “Still, this show will be a thing worth seeing. But you must keep yourself quiet in the evenings, and not trouble me while I’m working.”
His father, with no need, Honoré considered―M. Sarrazin had not asked it―had promised to carry some of his copying to Paris, and to labor over it at his hotel, thus mitigating his ten days’ absence.
“I will go by myself, and walk about the city.”
“No, certainly not. Not after dark.”
They were on the verge of a fresh argument, but Honoré saw his father check himself. A pleasure trip was a novelty to M. Gremot, but he had made a brave beginning.
They took their seats in a second-class compartment, the second time (after the porter), and leaving aside the trip itself, Honoré had ever witnessed his father spend more, for the sake of enjoyment, than exigency demanded.
“Now, on the way home, when we’ve seen the countryside already, we will go third class.” Not used to conversing with his son, he sought a topic in his surroundings. That to which he was unaccustomed made M. Gremot nervous; but he had not yet been made irritable. “Do you know, I have not left the city…well, I can’t say for how long. But, I have not traveled by rail, not…”
Honoré’s father did the sum in his head. “For, I think, thirteen years.”
A pensive moment. Honoré also did not mention Liège.
“We came by rail, when we left Huy, of course. That was not such a long journey. And you were very small, you will not remember.”
“I remember, though.”
A woman pried open the door to their compartment.
She shoved herself between the seats, her skirts filling Honoré’s lungs with the scent of camphor, putting a stop to the unspoken thought that for an instant had enlivened his father’s face. M. Gremot stood, crushing himself against the backrest, and muttered, “Pardon, madame.”
He remained thus, in her presence, awkwardly suspended. Shrinking from the elbow in its aromatic sleeve, Honoré made no attempt to stand.
Without apology, saying to herself, “Oh well, but in a minute the train is leaving”, she released the blind and backed onto the platform.
His father would tell him he had been rude to this woman.
But M. Gremot fell instead into a stiff-postured silence, that lasted until the train’s motion had accelerated to a cradling thrum, and its noise buffeted them about with an illusion of privacy. Then he said only, “We will be a long time on the train.”
He heard the reprimand, coming from the armchair beside the bed at the room’s other end, dispersing the dialogue he’d tried to create in his mind. He caught his last glimpse of the girl on the street below, the low bodice of her yellow gown, the man who’d slung his arm through hers, catching her round the waist. He could not tell if she’d smiled when her head lolled back drunkenly.
“Close the curtains.”
But his father rose, taking the three or four paces needed to cross their room; reaching hands above Honoré’s head and gathering fabric in his two fists, he obeyed himself. “Don’t stand there staring out of the window. Do you think they cannot see you, the people on the street?”
Honoré moved to sit on the dressing table, soon also to be a fault. He did not see how he offended by looking at the city. He felt intensely lonely when night fell and he was constrained to his father’s company.
M. Gremot, uneasy traveler, with his son as sole companion, controlled what he was able to control. Honoré’s mere existence, it seemed to him…his slouch, his bunched sleeves and crooked collar, the way he used a fork, possibly the way he breathed…gave excuse to correct and instruct. And each carp given vent to, was solace to his father’s discomfiture. The embitterments of daily life, now he was far removed from it, seemed to M. Gremot less an ordeal than the effronteries of Paris.
The Palace of Industry affronted him, with its six francs admission fee, the pass being good for a week; the pros of this, and the cons of paying at the gate, all amounting to a toss in a rigged game of chance. (And disturbing talk prices were going down, for lack of attendance.)
“But a week…it’s the same as making us pay for things we don’t care to see, and days we may not visit.”
Certainly, the restaurants on the grounds asked twice what any restaurant in the city might charge for the same meal. In defiance of such sharp practice, M. Gremot spoke on without lowering his voice. “These foreigners have no idea of what things ought to cost.”
Honoré lagged behind with his sketchbook. He was putting himself underfoot. His father reminded him, “You must be careful of your manners.”
Once, however, they had got to the aquariums; had walked through the entry, as did all visitors, with heads tilted back, awed at the sight of fish undulating above the glass bottoms of suspended tanks, M. Gremot was becalmed…and mesmerized by the jellyfish, by their soothing expansions and contractions.
“But, how do you suppose it is, Honoré, that they move about, and yet they are transparent, like glass? What can they be made of? I would like to see you draw that. Do you think you could?”
Honoré had drawn glass many times; to others, with their helpful centimes, an almost magical source of amazement. But the jellyfish lived…they were not still. He concentrated his attention on becoming the aperture through which the image was fixed; with perfect instinct, he had always done this. He wanted to please his father, and to impress the small audience he was gathering.
He began, using the side of his lead to blend a shape with no outlines. Where the darker waters of the tank showed through the animal’s translucence, Honoré worked carefully, layering in heavier shading, not allowing the lead to gloss the paper. With his white crayon, he picked out highlights…and there were myriad highlights. The jellyfish had crimped, ruffled, tentacular appendages; the leading edge of every curve that caught the light must be heightened. They had not much color, but a certain bulbous opacity, where the gills (gills, he thought with surprise, like those of a mushroom), appeared to the eye compressed, was also diffusely opalescent. This effect, Honoré had no means of reproducing in his sketch, but like his father, he wondered of what stuff the jellyfish was made.
He thought of Mme Feriet’s leg of mutton. A hateful meal, as Honoré remembered it…the rattling pot, boiling on the stove, frothing up a clear, gummy matter, while the meat stank and steamed.
“They are liquid, I think,” he said to his father, “and the sea gives them life. But taken from the water, they would dissolve, and be like tallow.”
“Ah, that is not so.”
A man who had been watching over Honoré’s shoulder the progress of his sketch, had become a near participant, remarking on his choices:
“Hmm, not quite.”
“A little darker just at the center.”
Now he spoke to Honoré directly. “You have not been to the southern coast, or you would know that the people in such places as Marseille, and the Spanish people, certainly…they eat these jellyfish. I cannot say these jellyfish,” he conceded. “But they eat all manner of things they pull out of the sea. The jellyfish may taste like tallow, I should not be surprised if it did… You have a gift, my young friend.”
He patted Honoré on the arm, and turned away. “And bright days ahead, I hope, in which to profit by it. But if we do not soon find ourselves at war, my judgment fails me.”
Evening fell; and, as they left the aquariums, Honoré dared to ask, “Please, Papa, may we stay for the entertainments?”
To have visited on this day when the Exposition’s schedule called for a concert, followed by a pyrotechnic show, and not to have seen these things, must be nearly out of the question. At night, as all accounts had it, the gardens were wrought wonders upon, transformed by lights whose beams lay upon the swaying tips of branches like an effervescent gilding, firing water droplets into precious gems.
But that was hearsay.
Honoré’s father, a provincial Belgian not wholly welcomed in this unfamiliar city, could not feel that they were safe after sunset. “Some of these you see among the crowd are plain-clothes policemen. They are here to watch for robbers and pickpockets…also, so I gather, they watch for foreign spies.”
Taking his father’s information into account, Honoré pointed, and his father, startled by the respectable-looking stranger’s puzzled glance, said quickly, “No, no…what are you doing?”
“I wondered whether he was a policeman or a spy?”
This, Honoré’s father told him, was a serious matter, not an occasion for mischief. In a strange city, one hardly knew the ways in which one might put a foot wrong. And here, M. Gremot’s hand had risen, a spasm at once repressed. He had thought, perhaps, of cuffing his son’s ear, had then recalled, on the verge of bringing attention to himself, that he was making this very point.
“How can you know what may count as an infraction…and what help will it be to you in a jail cell, wishing you had listened to your father, while you await the pleasure of a magistrate?”
No, in this series of unlucky chances, by M. Gremot readily foreseen, the money would run out, the return ticket be invalidated, the appointed hour of his reappearance at M. Sarrazin’s senior clerk’s desk, unkept; while a cold prison pallet told disastrously against Honoré’s weak lungs―all because his son could not be sensible, respectful, obedient.
They walked, admiring the gardens in the growing twilight, and after a pause during which Honoré consoled himself, remembering that on the whole, the day had been a happy one, his father said, “Well, it is nearly dark now. There, look…! They’re lighting the fountains. Honoré, everywhere I’ve heard people talking about these famous lights…I suppose we ought to say we’ve seen them.”
The misfortune had been that no omnibus could be found to take them to the street of their hotel. They had left the grounds at the wrong moment, the fireworks having just ended, a throng exiting all at once. A man other than Honoré’s father might have said, “In that case, we must have our supper and wait.”
But for M. Gremot, his mood…the enchantment of the gardens and the coruscations of the pyrotechnics fading from his mind, the fear that they would not arrive safely at their hotel reasserting itself; and angry at his own lapse, for having relaxed a rule he felt now had assuredly been proved correct…was spoiled for their remaining day in Paris.
Their hotel, being an inexpensive house, was gratifying to M. Gremot’s purse, but stood islanded at the terminus of an old city lane. At no great distance from their door, a broad new avenue was under construction. The hotel shared a wall with a bootmaker’s; the bootmaker shared a wall with a building already abandoned; the empty house, its windows boarded over, shared a wall with a pile of masonry.
Early each morning, Honoré and his father were awakened by the noise of steam-driven engines, and by an atonal chorus of stone-breaking. Metal hammerheads clanked…at first one persistently, then a host all at once; then—thud, thud, thud—stones struck the beds of wagons. Honoré’s father, after grumbling through days of this, had concluded these disturbing rhythms were produced with intent; that socialist agitators―here, he’d fixed Honoré with a blaming eye―taught the itinerant laborers to make such noises. He envisioned these same workers transformed after dark into wine-besotted prowlers.
“If we find the door locked against us, because the concierge looked for us at our usual time and decided we were not coming, we may as well expect, also, to be robbed on the street.”
When the cab delivered them, and rather than find the front door locked, M. Gremot discovered the hotelkeeper had left it, on this summer night, standing open, his confoundment with the city of Paris reached its state of consummation.
“I know you have borrowed money. Do you understand this at all, Honoré…do you see what you’ve done?”
Honoré had visited his father with no thought other than to share his news. He did not ask M. Gremot’s opinion. The proprietor of the Progressiste could travel as he chose; he did not need his father’s permission. And although, in his enthusiasm, he had spoken freely of this Paris venture, Honoré knew he had told his plans only to friends.
But his father, from some source, had learned this bit of gossip.
“Papa, I need only one or two stories. Once the Progressiste has built a reputation…”
“You never listen. You think it matters to me, this pretense of yours, that having thought of a different, and more pleasurable means of wasting your days, you call what you do by the name of work! A great scheme…another! I tell you, I know that you have put yourself in debt to Monsieur Eckhold. Never expect anything from me, never again. No!”
He flung out his hands. His gesture said: I have no use for this.
“Honoré.” His father quit looking at him, finding it easier to speak to the fire grate. “For years, as you know―as I’ve told you―I have put money aside. For you. When I believed you might take up some profession, I meant to help you make a start. To keep you from debt! I don’t know how you live. You don’t do any sort of work!”
Though wounded into a silence he had not proposed to break, Honoré could not let this last criticism pass unanswered. His father refused to believe in the Progressiste.
“But of course I work. I am a journalist.”
“You play a game of being a journalist. Do you know what you are? You are nothing, Honoré. And do you know why?” His father spoke with a terrible, quiet, wrathful intensity. “Because you have sold everything you might earn, everything you might be, to this moneylender. And you have made nothing of me, your father. Why? Because everything I have worked to save, everything I had hoped to leave to you as a legacy, will go to the moneylender!”
None of this, Honoré thought, was true. His father would learn one day that he had paid his debt.
“Goodbye, monsieur,” he told his father.
Gauthier Gremot’s final words were no kinder. He sounded, however―parting from his son for the last time―only defeated. “Your ideas are foolish, Honoré. If war comes, you will be arrested. And there will be no help for you.”
The Feuille d’Or, a restaurant of the Saint-Germain district, was très nouveau; and, unquestionably, all its ornamented fixtures bore a gloss of gilt. The accommodating dining room possessed a wealth of golden faux-capitals on faux-columns, wallpapering in foiled designs of gold picked out against sapphire blue. Those whose eyes had adjusted to the vivid contrast, could find here motifs of lotus, papyrus, and palm. The carpeting that rolled through the vestibule―where guests who had just left the opera, now left their hats and cloaks―was thickly woven in the same blue, and the warm yellow of an egg yolk; the sighing guest felt his heels sink into its sumptuous fibres. And all around the walls, framing these panels of paper, a temple façade in shining white marble enclosed diners in a feverish Egyptian fantasy, familiar to those who had visited the Exposition of ’67, and had found their sensibilities awash there in the architect’s vision.
Honoré had made a study of the Feuille d’Or, ambling, before the restaurant opened its doors, around the building, admiring its mosaic of tiles, the great awning that sheltered its entry, and the scrolling ironwork that protected each of its windows, communicating in a scripted dialogue with the harmony of the avenue. The morning was fine, and Honoré walked idly up the lane that led to the restaurant’s rear. He knocked at the door. A bald head, otherwise sporting tufts of black hair above each ear, was pushed through a parsimonious allowance of space between door and jamb.
“Would you like to hire me, monsieur, as a waiter?”
The man looked at Honoré without speaking. The head withdrew. The gap widened. Honoré peered up the passageway as he stepped inside, glanced back and rediscovered his host, who had vanished, and who now, as he thudded the door into its frame, reappeared. He crowded past Honoré and hurried ahead. Honoré followed this official to his room, taking the chair to which the man silently pointed.
“I would not like to hire you as a waiter,” his interviewer told him, backing stiff-jointedly into his seat, and eyeing Honoré with a dyspeptic grimace. “But I may do so. Tell me what references you can provide. This house is not Père Jacques.”
“I am…pardon me, monsieur.”
Glancing up, he found himself regarded narrowly.
“It is no matter to send for references. I am newly arrived in Paris…this was what I had begun to say. Today you will see for yourself the sort of work I am able to do.”
“You have a cough.”
“No, monsieur, I don’t.”
“I would not hire you, not even to sweep crumbs from the carpet. I cannot have that sort of thing.”
And that, to Honoré’s indignation, had been the end of it. Such an excellent idea had come to him, and he was not prepared, just so, to abandon it. Had he been given the chance to serve the guests of the Feuille d’Or, he would benefit in two ways—his money, first, would last so much longer. Second, having seen the quality of the restaurant’s guests, Honoré could see as well that a waiter, eavesdropping here where the best class of society gathered, hardly could escape overhearing the important talk of important men. He might make himself of particular help, then, to whomever he wished to cultivate.
As a poor journalist Honoré had not needed to dress well, nor could he afford to. He was aware that his clothes were not good. He looked like a student; he walked about with his sketchbook, and was taken for an artist. But Honoré wished to be the gentleman, there, the one who turned away, with equal indifference to his fur-lined opera cape, and to the girl behind the counter who accepted it from him.
“No, I am in complete agreement.”
He had come through the entrance with four others. Engrossed in conversation, Honoré’s exemplar now tossed aside his hat, presuming again that the girl would take charge of it. Hinges creaked as a door swung open, but portent could not trouble Honoré. In defiance of the Feuille d’Or’s proscription, he was studying this ensemble and their mannerisms…eavesdropping, regardless.
“Of course, they like this socialist dream of equality among men. And…”
(He was droll, this gentleman.)
“We who guard the people’s inheritance, and have all the while made our little improvements to their property, have…to our misfortune, no doubt…made revolution’s prize the more enticing. But, it is because these young men of the army have lost their pride. A small war will give this back to them; they will then return to their barracks in a generous spirit…”
Honoré felt the grip of a hand close on his arm.
“I know you.” The hand was that of his interviewer. “How did you get in…? Never mind. I am going to ask you—”
Retaining his hold, with his other hand he pressed Honoré between the shoulders, forcing him in the direction of the door, where the porter, alert, had already put his thumb to the lever.
“Merely to ask you, if you will not leave these premises.”
Continued from “these premises”
“I will leave, monsieur.” From squirming against this rough handling, Honoré relaxed into acquiescence. The restaurateur had been spotted by his guests.
He bowed, putting the intruder behind his back as he scooted past, and murmuring, “Monsieur le baron…I an entirely at your service…”
As for getting in, Honoré had entered as before, finding (he’d expected one might in such hot weather) the delivery door stoppered open. A heavy-set man clad in a white apron leaned against this, mopping his face.
“I have arrived late to work.” Nodding as he slipped over the threshold, Honoré added: “I will go change clothes at once.”
Adjusting his cap, he said in a voice of humility, but audible to the group, as he had put himself among them, “Yesterday, monsieur, I could not satisfy you…with my references. You must please accept my apology. Again today, I waste your time. Again, I apologize. You will not hire me, and you will not have me as a guest in your house.”
The little speech won an exchange of smiles.
Honoré cocked an eye at the well-to-do diners, and pushed ahead with his mischief. “But you do not own the street. It will not trouble you then, if I stand outside the Feuille d’Or and watch to see who enters?”
The proprietor crossed his arms.
“Yesterday, you tried to make your way into this establishment under false pretenses. Why should you stand on the street and watch? Only because you would like a story to sell. I do not know which of these journals you work for, but it makes no difference. I will have you arrested. And if I am wrong, I will pay the fine. And if I am right, you will pay the fine.”
It was remiss in the Progressiste’s Paris correspondent to omit telegraphing his paper’s office of business on the fifteenth of July. On this day the story blistered its way across the French capital, and everyone knew it to be true. They had known of it since yesterday, when rumors of the legislative debate sneaked out (this news too good for the elite of the press corps not to share in advance of publication). War was declared against Prussia. The Prussian ambassador, said to have been recalled to Berlin, was said also to board his train today. The Constitutionnel stated it plainly. Marshal Leboeuf had asked that the garde mobile be called out.
And the weather was stagnant and sultry. An intolerable closeness, an urgent desire to exchange intelligence, or to feel that they were doing so, had driven the crowds into the streets. Honoré wormed his way along, found a patch of wall to lean against…balancing his sketchbook in the crook of his arm, he filled its pages with small notated drawings. Although an hour ago, with annoyance, he’d shaken off yet another sergent-de-ville, at this moment he felt only an exquisite detachment, no more than a bubbling undercurrent of elation.
Wherever he went these mid-July days, it seemed he must be preyed upon in this fashion. Questions were asked with a grim cheer. So far, no papers had been demanded of him, and he showed his reporter’s notes willingly. He had not been threatened, even in language oblique, with arrest. But at each encounter, he was given two or three chances to go wrong; this, he recognized as the game of the police.
Still, he meant to avoid documenting himself.
He would not approach the Belgian embassy, knowing that one could be assisted through official channels to an undesirable end. He would be told, no doubt, to go home; that he had no business in Paris, that foreigners were to be expelled…and that in wartime there could be no help for this. If (owing money as he did), his address became associated with his name, he would have to move to rid himself of this hazard. He could keep his room a day or two more; he could not afford to take another…there being some difference between promising rent and paying it. The Progressiste had not yet bloomed into its glory.
Four days after the declaration, he watched the infantry, the soldiers of the line, march to board the cars for transport to the camp at Chalons. He saw women rush into the street to kiss and embrace them, pressing on them small flags and bunches of flowers.
A cavalry company, colors leading, bore onto the boulevard, the pulse of the crowd elevating with the synchronization of a thousand hoof-beats. He saw near tramplings brought on by a hysterical few, who would not, for their perverse excitement, keep back. Moved by the élan with which such men could in this heat bear their shakos and high-buttoned tunics, onlookers chanted continuously:
“A bas la Prusse!”
“Vive l’armée! Vive la cavalerie!”
That this amour de la patrie, this intensity of feeling, this ardent wish for war to crack through the heat of summer like a thunderbolt, would in consequence alter his own fortune, Honoré had himself predicted; now, also, he had the proof. He could not write to Gilbert often. For days telegraphing had been impossible…the queues, of late, so long, and Honoré, having given himself all the tasks of witnessing events, recording them, copy-editing his own work and then condensing it, could not also stand about waiting all day. But on the latest occasion that Honoré had heard from Gilbert, his partner boasted certifiable sales of the Progressiste. Real customers, not fellow lodgers, or friends who pitied them, had begun to buy their paper. And this was because of Honoré’s first-hand reporting from Paris.
A woman bumped against him. But he never kept his money where a street corner pickpocket might lay hands on it.
“They will execute two prisoners tomorrow.”
“At the Cherche Midi, I have heard.”
He glanced down at her, and found that, after all, she was not far from his own age. Her gown was black, the discoloration of its fabric showing in the sunlight swaths of blowsy bronze and bottle green. She wore a low-crowned hat with ruffled edging, a veil over her eyes, and all her excess drapery seemed to have wilted, among the sweat and exhalations of the horde, into miserable sacking.
“They allow no one to go near…they will have a guard,” she told him.
He did not know why she wanted to sell him information, but felt sorry for her. She mourned (not, he supposed, for the convicted spies), yet here she was on the street, earning her living. Further, a centime here and there, while pleasing to the managing editor and chief correspondent of the Progressiste, did not pay his debt. He had yet to find his important story.
“Madame,” he said to her, “do you mean to cross the boulevard here? The day is very hot. Perhaps you would like my arm.”
She knew the hour when the plain coffins would be interred. Tonight, rising at dusk…their first rising on life’s other shore…these phantoms would not find themselves the most wrathful among the new citizens of Montparnasse, nor the most sorrowful. Many before had been covered in earth when their hands would have clutched at the life stolen from them.
She’d woken Honoré; then, wrapping herself in his blanket, had gone to part the curtains. “There! You see the fog…this is just the weather they like. But they will do their work and be gone. If you want your story, get dressed!”
She had told him only one name, Octavie. Underneath the heavy black dress she wore, her person had become somewhat overripened. She had disarrayed his things, and he had been torn between a desire to set them right at once, and the embarrassment of looking old-womanish in her eyes. He hoped she did not mean to live in his room, because he’d let her stay the night.
On a routine day, Honoré, like his father, would pay for a cab, not unless the distance on foot were impossible. But Octavie hadn’t rifled his pockets and disappeared while he slept, and for that, she’d gained something in trust. Also, he could not walk far, breathing such unwholesome air…
Also, she might yet lead him astray on these streets, where every lane was cloaked behind a blank wall of fog.
And having paid the driver his not-too-costly fare, Honoré learned a new thing at once. He could watch Octavie’s black gown disappear in the billows ahead, or watch his own feet. He was on his knees, patting at the trodden soil, feeling on its surface beneath his fingertips a cold, eely scum. In tripping over a stone or a root, he had dropped his knapsack…but could not find that anything had spilled. A shade fell dark across the greenish gloom, and a human form loomed above his head, making his heart race. Before he could jump to his feet, the figure parted the mists…and emerged as Octavie.
“There, you see?”
Stepping aside, her skirts no longer blocking his view, she pointed. Honoré saw a ring of glowing lanterns. He stumbled, standing, against a low slab of stone, and decided that here he would spread his things. Far from their adventure being a clandestine affair, he found they watched from the periphery of a small crowd of curiosity-seekers, numbering two dozen or so.
“We can go closer. I don’t see why we wouldn’t.” She walked ahead.
“Octavie, stop, please.”
Her hat, brushed by the depending branch of an evergreen, half-bracketed his view. Under the lightening sky, he saw that only one man labored at filling the graves. Dressed in striped shirt and rusty conical cap, he spaded earth furiously. These patches of color in his clothing contrasted against the somber men’s, those who stood at the grave’s edge…the contrast culminating, in vibrance and imagery, with the muted sun that broke above their heads. One in uniform stood apart, and watched the gravedigger at work; the others were engaged in a discussion, so animated that Honoré, standing at this distance, could hear snatches of their talk.
“I want to draw you,” he told her, hoping she would oblige him by staying just as she was. He chose a pastel, in a shade of green he rendered near grey by overlaying the charcoal ground he’d buffed onto the paper. He did not much like pastels. The finished sketch called for too much careful handling; its dusty surface was too easily smeared. But here were colors he wanted to capture, some mood in the tension between the city and the stillness, the dead stone and waking life.
The night’s spider webs sagged from the tips of branches, overweighed with the condensation of dew. Octavie’s three-quarters profile, her mourning hat, its fraying threads also finely dewed, caught the sunlight, soft moss-hued fingers of cypress stirred and touched the hat’s squashed crown, green against black, forming and re-forming a circle, a smaller circle of men and lanterns within, the tawny mound of earth at its center.
Honoré could pick up the gist of the men’s talk. One asked a number of questions, in labored but correct French. Another put to the prison officer only one question. He chose his moment, breaking into the pause as the officer drew breath to answer his rival; and while the other’s voice carried, this one’s, in its low and sober tenor, rebuked.
“As for making an example…it is human nature to exclude oneself from those qualities one deprecates in others. What I mean to say is, here you have caught a pair of Bavarian shopkeeper’s assistants, and you have put them out of the way with excellent efficiency…but, do you not suppose, that if there are spies in the ministries, or in the salons—that is, in the high places as well as the low…do you not suppose spies of that class will feel reassured by this, rather than daunted? They will then tell themselves the danger is to foreigners and men of insignificance.”
The prison officer’s philosophy was that of a civil servant…or a general of the army. He did not trouble his mind over questions, and his answer was beside the point, rather than to it. “These things are done in accordance with the law of France. Let us catch another spy, and he also will go to the guillotine. And if he is a shopkeeper or a baron, it makes no difference.”
Blending a pale haze into the background, erasing out shafts of blank paper for the whiteness of the sun, building from an abstraction of form into detail; sharpening, finally, the border between values of light and dark which gives the appearance of a line, Honoré’s concentration was for some minutes nearly undisturbed. Octavie held her pose, for that length of time experience had taught him was the average person’s limit―a quarter hour or so―then arched her back, sighed and turned her head.
He moved to where she stood, touched her under the chin, using two fingers that held a stick of yellow chalk. He steered her head to an approximation of its earlier position. This time, after keeping still for perhaps twenty seconds, she clasped her hands behind her neck and stretched again. When this movement brought no correction, she stepped away from the cypress, and came to look over his shoulder.
“Oh, I see…” She leaned, and cast a shadow on the page.
“Please. Octavie, I don’t need you any longer. Go look at what they’re doing, there by the grave. You wanted to a moment ago.”
He had a passing impression he had made her angry. As she moved away, and as, once again, he had light enough to finish, he heard her say, “I see how you have used my face.”
The fog had about it something rank, some smell that was cloying to breathe in, difficult to expel. He lifted the sketch, held it parallel to his chest, inhaled to blow the dust from it…and this drawing of breath proved too much. He laid his sketchbook aside.
Octavie had vanished.
Well, if she’d gone to wait for him on the street, he couldn’t know it. Honoré would not wait for her. He was pleased to see her gone, in a way…but, she took offense too readily, he thought.
He stepped along the narrow path between graves, and stood warming himself for a while in the sun. He saw, turning to collect his things, the cypress boughs move with a rising breeze, sweeping a dappled light across the twin of the shadowed tomb where he’d laid out his materials. A man stood here, hatless, thin hair brushed back from a peak at the center of his forehead. He was dressed otherwise in a bourgeois city suit, and rested his coattails against the backside of a mourning effigy. The stranger had taken up Honoré’s sketchbook, tilting it one way and another.
He smiled. “You have drawn me.”
He glanced up at Honoré, and his forefinger came down, within a centimeter of the circle of figures. “There I stand in a halo of sun next to the gentleman from the Times…”
He paused, and laughed with ironic pleasure; then, looking up again, met Honoré’s eyes and cocked his head, in fashion having in it a degree of deliberation. Apprehended by the worry―for these things were not unknown to artists―that his work might be thumb-printed, Honoré supposed his face had betrayed him.
“I never learned your name, but I will give you mine.”
The stranger bent to shed the sketchbook, judicious placing it, showing he knew something about art. Straightening, he bent again, bowing to Honoré. “I am Yves Amédée.” He patted his pockets. “You had better take my card. I would like to buy that drawing of yours.”
From some occasion, then, he must know M. Amédée, who had not learned his name. And he must remedy this omission. “Monsieur Amédée, I am Honoré Gremot. The drawing is yours if you like. Only…”
“Really, monsieur, it is not fit to be sold. The pastels have not been fixed on the page. You see, I mean to use this for a study, and then to paint the scene…”
“Now, there you are wrong.”
His tone, extraordinarily confident, yet too cheerful to seem upbraiding, brought Honoré, with a start, to a recollection. He looked sideways at Amédée, and Amédée nodded. “You were with your father, at the aquarium. How does he do?”
“I hope that he does well.”
“Ah.” Amédée gestured towards the sketch, passing again to his first topic. “See, you have an idea here. This girl, I don’t know who she is―”
“The shadow here, on her cheek, and the light, touching the crown of her hat…and then in the distance you have the little grouping at the grave. You will trouble yourself excessively over the reworking of all this…this that you have done spontaneously. And you will destroy it. No, I would rather have this drawing, than a painting taken from it. I know of a shop where I will have it framed.”
The point was well observed. Rather than say so, Honoré hesitated in silence, resentful that a near stranger, after only a glance, should achieve this insight. He had damaged (he would not say destroyed) sketches he had at first been satisfied with. He had nagged himself to excess over them…because he could hear the voice of his father, telling him he would never make a living at this. He thought now of the low ebb his finances had reached.
And even so, even though Amédée’s interest was a gift he could hardly refuse, Honoré wanted to show a professional coolness, an artist’s lofty indifference to the vulgarity of trade…
“I hope I do not insult you, if I offer you fifteen francs? But you must tell me what others have paid you for your work.”
Nothing, in effect. Pocket change and favors. “If you would pay me so much… I apologize, monsieur. ”
And having begun, he felt a wish to expiate his fault, to be certain he had not really annoyed Amédée. “To tell the truth, I have nearly run out of money…but, we are at war now. I expect my opportunities will improve! Still I don’t mind if you would like to have this drawing…”
“At a price of fifteen francs.”
But already Amédée had withdrawn his purse and was counting out the coins. “You had better stop to see me at my offices one day.” He dropped into Honoré’s hand three five-franc pieces, and followed these with the promised card. “Bring me some of your other work. Don’t wait until you are starving.”
August came on, and Honoré began to feel pressured by the threadbare realities of his financial state, the burden of being one of a staff of two. He tried to do his share…but without Gilbert’s company, without his friend to joke and argue with, the writing of a half-dozen sundry articles per week, communicated, for poverty’s sake, by post, became a chore he could not always bring himself to complete.
At home Gilbert had returned, and without much shame, to rewriting items taken from larger papers. This was easily done, as the Progressiste could not be published oftener than fortnightly. One could judge, then, from talk in the cafés, those things most interesting to the public…and the public liked a popular story rehashed better than something fresh that bored them. Besides which, as Gilbert noted: “I correct the errors, and arrange the details for better appeal, because I know the outcome.”
War, though he’d come to Paris to report it, had altered Honoré’s condition. The battlefront was now a place. In a curious way, the brink of war had been a place as well: Paris, the cynosure of all Europe, wellspring of historic events, focus of vigilant eyes. He’d enjoyed a giddy three weeks from late June to mid-July, when he might at random have tapped the shoulder of any passerby, and that man’s or woman’s thoughts—on the prospect of a short war, of victory obtained at no greater cost than a shake-up of the army’s complacency (needed, as most agreed, in any case)—would have served for another welcome bone tossed to the insatiable appetite of Schaerbeek.
War had become, so suddenly, a grim and doubtful affair. Gilbert wrote: You must come home. I can’t do this work alone. I will have to give it up.
Honoré, foundering, had thought of doing more than give up.
But on that July morning, as he’d left the cemetery of Montparnasse, weighing his frustrations against his unlooked-for earnings, he had found the balance on the side of luck. Like Michelet, he was soon to receive advice; advice that set him on a course; a course that led to suffering and loss. The advice had not been intended for Honoré.
He was returning to his room, walking, now the fog had cleared. He reached a by-street, all the time dreaming of ways to spend his fifteen francs. He was unwilling to be tempted by rent, or by any practicality, which, in exchange for a windfall, seemed a poor sort of gratitude. Remembering the beautiful clothes of M. d’Or (as Honoré had named him), the picture of strength that style of itself conferred, he’d decided he must buy a suit, never again to be seen looking “insignificant”…that had been Amédée’s word.
He came to a corner, where a little lane departed. Here, the overhanging eaves of two houses cooled the air, and Honoré withdrew into their shade. He heard a busy, constant chatter. He peered overhead, where numbers of soot-encrusted tiles, secluded in damp and shadow, had become loosened. At the mouths of these gaps fluttered small birds, their breast feathers streaked brown and white. They shimmied from view…at once they darted out again.
He watched them land in a flock on the street where a drain overflowed. A pool of water stood placid here like a platter of tarnished silver; the sparrows settling one by one to drink. When the last touched the water, they all erupted in aborted flight.
He found a place to sit, a wooden step painted a light green. Two such together reached a door, also green, and decorated with a hanging bunch of lavender. He opened his sketchbook…he contemplated the nature of water. He thought of Amédée, who had made him a sort of offer. He had pocketed Amédée’s card, but had not looked at it.
He heard a chirping that was not the call of a bird.
The sound was faint, a melodic chime. He stood listening, able as the chime faded to a repetition of glassy notes, to discern it was through the window he heard this noise. In the lane’s shrouded light, the window became a mirror, and he saw his own face, frowning. Behind the panes sat a wide shelf, holding among other bric-a-brac, a porcelain clock. So close to the window, he could hear a conversation also, from within.
“Here, everyone is crazy with rumors. You’ll do yourself no good.”
A woman answered, in a brittle burst of elevated speech. Honoré was able to make out, “safe”.
“Very dangerous.” The man’s tone was dismissive. “What you see at the battlefront is not a rumor. There you have a story worth telling.”
A second man joined in the conversation, too quiet in his speech to comprehend, and hovering here, Honoré feared he made himself conspicuous. Though he could not see them in the unlit interior, they stood or sat nearby, and might readily see him.
But, he was willing to forget his birds. He picked up his knapsack, and strolled away, tucking the sketchbook inside as he walked. Three times favored―that in itself was excellent, because Heaven was not always so generous. First, the editor of an important journal had asked to see more of his work. He felt again that frisson that had prompted him, warning him to alter his manner towards Amédée. For a second boon, Amédée had provided him money to spend. And last, he’d been guided to this unknown lane, to this shop he had never before seen, to hear these words.
“Now, why progressive? Or rather, if I may ask, is it that your paper speaks to an enlightened faction of the class, or do you aim to teach new things to the workers generally?”
In retort, he tried calling to mind any of his better remarks published in the Progressiste, but Honoré had been made unhappy by Yves Amédée, and fought an urge to take up his drawings and turn his back on the editor of the Dépêche. Amédée’s manner from the start had been a baffling sort of calculated blindness. He had not made himself available when Honoré had sent up his card, not for over an hour; and admitting him to his room, had at once commented on the suit he wore.
“You’re dressed to go out to supper, I think. I promise you then, Monsieur Gremot, whatever business you’ve come to discuss, I will give you a quick answer.”
At a shop where other people’s discarded clothing was sold, Honoré had picked out a plain black suit-coat, one with a double-breasted front; not overlong, he thought, in the skirt and sleeves, though the shoulders were too broad and it sat boxily above the hips. The shop’s proprietor, a tailor by trade, watched in serenity as Honoré tried the coat on; then taking control of his sale with expert hands, came round him in front and fastened the buttons.
He circled behind, gathering excess fabric while nudging to the left and right, steering Honoré closer to the mirror. “You see how it is, that the tailoring of a garment proves its quality. The best of materials will look poor when the piece has not been fitted to the gentleman who wears it.”
He drew pins from his lapel, where were stuck tidy rows of them, cinching the waist and pulling in the shoulders, until the view Honoré had of himself was transformed, and he understood perfectly the tailor’s meaning.
By luck, these clothiers had a length of good serge—“Only a remnant…today we can give you a bargain price”; the price conditional on Honoré’s ordering a pair of trousers and a waistcoat, in addition to alterations on the coat…but, there’d been no reason not to. The bolt-end of cloth had made a very close match. Upstairs in his atelier, the draper, studying Honoré’s measurements, had told him he would never appear at his best if he were not willing to, “Spend that extra small amount…you are of a rather thin figure, monsieur.”
The argument had hardly needed making.
But for having, on that day at Montparnasse, instigated this expense, as well as the fare for the omnibus that had carried Honoré over the Seine to the tenth arrondissement; for having raised hopes (hopes that already in Honoré’s imagination had spun themselves into scenarios), Amédée’s manner, at this second meeting, was grown discouragingly obtuse. He had done something with that first remark…Honoré hadn’t understood what, not until the editor annoyed him with it again, pretending to think they were colleagues; that they might spend a few minutes discussing war and weather, then part with a mutual bow. This subtle play on a man’s status―as Honoré, in some wonder, considered its effect―was allowing Amédée to appear quite friendly, while offering none of the help he’d seemed to promise.
“I would hope, Monsieur Amédée, that there is a class which comprises every sort of reader, and that the teachings, if you like, of the Progressiste, will…” He did, now, move to the side of Amédée’s desk, an ordered desk with no papers on its surface, other than the two drawings Honoré had given him―but only for his review.
He had gone out walking through the Luxembourg garden, his thoughts pushed along by his steps. “What sort of picture would he like to buy…what do I remember him saying to me?” He’d grown tired of this, slowed to a standstill and squinted upwards at a figure of antiquity who tended a brazier on a marble plinth. Dropping his knapsack at the monument’s foot, Honoré settled himself in its shadow. His pencil drifted over his paper. The girl, he decided, was key. Her face had been the thing Amédée had particularly remarked upon. There were girls here on the promenade, taking the sun, strolling with parasols cocked over their shoulders.
He’d taken warning from the flatness of Amédée’s voice; and the hand with which Honoré had reached for the third sketch froze inside his portfolio. He withdrew it.
“Monsieur Ballatin.” Amédée picked up the sheet that guarded the pastels…and showed the masthead, the important editorial, some general news—the front page, in short, torn from one of a dozen Progressistes Honoré had brought with him to Paris. This, he had thought, would make a conversation starter, and a subtle bid for employment preferable to a direct plea.
“Yes, you see, we are in the same profession,” he might, with a small laugh, have told Amédée. But…Ballatin? Honoré began to feel badly insulted.
He would, perhaps, drop another of his cards under Amédée’s nose, then shut the door with a firm hand when he left; which he meant to do shortly, once―before Amédée’s eyes―he had checked his watch.
Amédée looked up from his reading. Even this satisfaction, he seemed to have anticipated, and now circumvented. “I apologize. When you leave, Monsieur Gremot, you will see a window at the end of the corridor. Face that direction. His room will be two doors ahead on your right. Ballatin manages all our advertising. I’m confident he will have a suggestion for you, as to where you may sell these.”
He then laid the paper down, smiled…charmingly, and told Honoré: “But I’m not asking you to leave.”
He questioned the work in ways that Honoré―who would not resume his seat―no longer interpreted as kind. Yet he felt he wasted a chance; and felt himself at the same time too tempersome to recover it.
Why progressive…? He would like to close this opening with a devastating clarity. Only it needed a moment’s time for Honoré to think of a clarity better than the truth. The Progressiste was a chameleon, meant so, to attract every sort of ideologue, as he and Gilbert could not have survived without every possible customer.
“Will have,” Amédée prompted now, “a natural appeal for the enlightened thinker?”
“I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, Monsieur Gremot.”
His own had scattered, in any case. Honoré nearly shrugged, and caught himself. He nearly reminded Amédée, in defiance, “I will not be staying long in Paris.” But not surrendering the paper, Amédée had opened a drawer of his desk, and folded this away inside. From the same drawer he removed a square book, bound in blue leather.
“It occurs to me that you may go with your work to one of my competitors, and…although I have nothing for you today, I may come to regret, tomorrow, not having paid you a retainer.”
Continued from “a retainer”
It was charity. And tyranny as well. Amédée tore away the cheque…forty francs…a sum too generous, and too much wanted, for Honoré to have refused it. He placed this on the desk, and by resting his two hands, one either side, enclosed it with a sort of fence. Honoré bristled. He would not stoop to pick up money. But he shifted his portfolio to the left, leaving his right hand free to receive the cheque, if Amédée would at least hand it up to him. He tried to force himself to be agreeable. He parted his lips, to offer some polite expression.
Amédée said, “If you accept this, Monsieur Gremot, we will have entered into a contract, you and I. Whatever you learn, you must it bring to me directly, and to no one else. And you must remain in Paris for the war’s duration…because it may be that at any time I will have a job for you.”
Honoré had wished to believe the chiming clock a messenger, the stranger who’d spoken of the battlefront, one of God’s angels…humble, as his grandmother had taught him so many years ago, in the manner of their appearance; their words mysterious, their purpose to be obeyed in faith. For the all-seeing one has sent them to guide us, when we are not even aware that our hearts had asked for this.
Yet, he would have to abandon the plan he’d been foolish enough to share with Amédée. And then how would he meet this new obligation? His debt to M. Eckhold, he could not repay with Amédée’s forty francs. It would have needed ten times that amount.
He set off from the Depêche offices, and ambled gloomily along the rue la Fayette, looking for ways to spend his money, since there was nothing else to be done with it. He passed a window, its width filled with colored posters…
This one, the steamship Amerique, that one…he peered more closely…the Afrique, the bow of the first cutting through waves (Honoré, while admitting he had never seen the ocean, thought he would not have drawn these to so much resemble drippings of candlewax). The Afrique was portrayed broadside on an indigo sea under a black sky…but also under myriad dots of starlight…recognizable constellations, even, filled this heaven…and all along the side of the ship, yellow lamps were aglow.
With some regret, Honoré considered that, had he hurried off to M. Ballatin, he might soon be making such art himself. He was instead at loose ends, trammeled by Amédée’s pity. A cardboard sign, propped against the window, caught his eye.
Avis…le service de bateaux à vapeur interrompu…
The ports of Hambourg and Bremerhaven under blockade.
Excellent North American rates offered to all classes of passenger.
Indianapolis, United States, was a real place. He’d found it, once, on a map…though it was not a port city; he could not come to his relative’s house simply by crossing the ocean. The dream was vaguely painful, its birth associated with one of his father’s rages. And this, he had never shared with Gilbert. He would, if it could be done, cable Gilbert, and give his answer—
So far as I am concerned, mon frère, you are free to do as you like.
My Dear Sir,
It is my sad duty to inform you of the decease of your brother, Alain Gremot. He had celebrated (as I know you are aware) his sixty-fourth birthday in October of last year; it was on the ninth of January, of the present year, that my dear father-in-law was called to his Maker―therefore I hope you will take comfort in knowing that your brother’s long life had been one of service and piety, and that his final illness was, thankfully (for God is merciful), of short duration. He did not suffer greatly. Your nephew Walter is his father’s only heir. At the time he had gone through Papa’s correspondence (for so we both called your dear brother), my husband discovered your letters dating from the early months of 1855. He begged me to write you a personal note, rather than allow his lawyer to inform you of your brother’s departure; and although we have never had the pleasure of knowing you personally, I must, with apologies, use this grievous occasion to introduce myself to you.
Eighteen fifty-five had been the bad year; the first of M. Gremot’s imprisonment. But this letter was dated: “Sunday, the 17th of February, 1858”.
Honoré at once picked out the dates, though he did not know how the years were said in English. The words he translated, slowly, for his sister Claudette.
“It is my,” he read aloud to her. “Il est…non, je crois…”
The “my” he recalled, signified possession…so Mme Gremot really meant to have said, not “it is”, but, “I have.”
“Elle a…une chose de…” But, the next two words told him nothing; he knew “inform”; could guess “decease”; recalled after a moment that “brother” had been one of his tutor M. Bernheim’s vocabulary words. Alain…there was an uncle, a much older brother of Papa’s, who had gone away.
“This is concerning our uncle,” he told Claudette. “Our uncle is dead.”
“But back then,” she said. “Five years ago.”
The second letter had been the first. This was written in their own language, a single paragraph in length, signed Alain, dated―by striking coincidence―the ninth of January…but of 1855. Papa had saved his brother’s half of the correspondence chiefly, Honoré thought, because he hoped to one day use the phrases himself, so well did they echo his own sentiments.
If you have not learned how to manage your expenses; if you cannot keep a property that in our father’s time provided us all a comfortable living; if I then allow you to borrow money from me, what change will come about? Yes, Gauthier, you will pay your debts, and be safe for a time, but what follows? If you understood the best way to keep a farm, you would not have incurred these debts. I am very willing to help you to do better, but I will not help you to do worse.
When he came home, sometimes quite late in the evenings, M. Gremot took his children to a basement kitchen, the cheapest of eating establishments convenient to their house. All up the street, even from their own window, one could smell Van Meeren’s cabbage boiling. They sat at the long table in the room’s center, around which the cook’s daughter plied the narrow gangways with a bowl in either hand, a high tide mark of stew splashed along her apron front. Tables had been pushed against the wall in numbers dense as could be managed, the furniture had all been scavenged; one or two of these, strictly speaking, were not tables at all, but chests of drawers. Nonetheless, they had cloths thrown over, and stools pulled up.
Cabbage being said to ward off the diseases of malnutrition, every night for Honoré and Claudette it was cabbage, usually served with mutton stew, always coarse bread, a pot of coffee…and Papa did not object to their having beer. He wanted his children to eat as much as possible while they were out and he was paying for their meal. When he saw they hadn’t cleared their plates, he chivvied them: “Do you want to have your teeth rot? If you don’t finish your cabbage, you will eat it for breakfast.”
The threat was mild. M. Gremot, having perfected a system that took the least of his time, that fed his children in bulk―in sufficient quantity no neighborhood busybody could complain of it―also carried a pot home with him each night from chez Van Meeren, and the Gremot children had cabbage for breakfast in any case, unless the kitchen had run short.
It was a measure of the awe with which Honoré regarded his father, that although he would turn thirteen that year, he had never before thought of rifling M. Gremot’s desk.
He looked again at the letter of 1858, the one signed: Mrs. W. A. Gremot.
God is…le Dieu est…something…in the nature of gratitude…that Honoré could not fit into a proper sentence―but this ‘ful’ meant in English, beaucoup. So many thanks God feels for uncle Alain…of course owing, Honoré decided, to this service and piété mentioned…durée, neveu, héritier, grief…but―il célèbre…or, it might be, nous célèbrons. Alain Gremot had not celebrated his own decease, presumably, but perhaps Papa’s nephew—“notre cousin,” Honoré told Claudette―did, with madame, celebrate an inheritance.
“But, no money?” she asked.
Yet, when he pushed the drawer closed, he found it balked against some obstacle. He pulled it out again, rattled it side to side, gave it a slam, and heard a coin drop, wheel and come to rest.
The almond gateaux, saturated in sweet liqueur―one whole cake for Honoré, one for Claudette―might have been worth the flogging.
And the house number, sixty-three, had a shape: round, easy to picture, as one could a sleeping cat, nestled with its tail curled round its haunches. He had hardly needed saying it over to himself to fix it in memory. The street was Ohio. He fancied this name to be pronounced, more or less, as “Huy”. But he did not stop at the shipping agency’s office to ask the price of passage. The inspiration was new, and Honoré hated to be stupid with clerks. He walked on.
If there had been no war to hamper travel, and it had been possible to go home, most of the money he possessed might have taken him by rail to Bruxelles. By this reckoning he guessed that even a cot in steerage would cost far more than what he could add of M. Eckhold’s money to Amédée’s.
Yet, supposing he returned to this street, supposing he could betray Gilbert, abandon the Progressiste, abandon everything…what to ask? The cheapest fare, the papers required, how he would get from the harbor of New York to number 63 Ohio Street, Indianapolis…and what good was it to arrive, if he had not worked out what to say to this American cousin? He could not expect―should he appear at the door unannounced, with no money and no employment―to be welcomed, no more so than if he went back to his father a defaulter and a failure.
A week or so after, Honoré had a bit of luck.
Gérard Costa was at the Péquenotte, and in command of an outdoor table, a rare thing to have acquired in such fine weather, and following a session of the legislature. The daily papers transcribed the debates word for word; these reports made, for the left fringe, so many lines to read between. The café on the rue d’Assas was favored by the underground press; Gérard’s tablemate was his younger employer, Limolette, publisher of the journal L’Ilote. There was no chair for Honoré, but he came to stand next to Limolette, and asked Gérard, “Are your prospects any better today?”
“Better than none at all, worse than they ought to be.”
Gérard was a communist, a tireless generator of articles for a handful of radical publications; a man truculent and willing to be used, spoken to by everyone, liked by a few. Himself in perpetual estrangement―from his family, his income, his adopted city―Gérard was aggressive in befriending his fellow outsiders. But his sympathies did not make him a wise mentor to Honoré, nor a particularly instructive one.
“That coquin…” He referred to his stepfather. “I have ordered him to leave off, at present. Suppose the government falls? I think it would be a mistake to bring money into the country during wartime. But I don’t expect him to listen.”
This no doubt was true. Honoré thought a lawyer, once employed, must be like a sheep put out to graze. He would not stop until the meadow was barren; until then, he would always find some new corner in which to browse. And it was more difficult for Gérard, as he lived under the lawyer’s roof. At thirty-two, Gérard remained a dependent in his mother’s house, his inheritance tied up in colonial properties; these under the sway, owing to Gérard’s ignorance of financial matters, of his mother’s second husband.
“Jean-Gilles has a perverse wish to put me in the wrong. Now I ask him to hold off selling, as he is always telling me the value of land can only grow, and now he will bankrupt me…and say it was done at my own request.”
Limolette, without a word, handed a paper across the table. It looked to Honoré like a proclamation, or something of equal weight; and although he had not been invited to notice what passed between Limolette and Gérard, from curiosity he picked the document up.
“Are you going to the battlefront, Gérard? I will go with you.”
“No.” It was Limolette who answered. “Gérard has bought a bad forgery is all. What’s the use of it?”
“Well, but what do the Prussians know? This paper could be worth something in a tight spot. I am going,” Gérard looked up at Honoré, “to the camp at Chalons. I will be the people’s observer, to report how the generals abuse the nation’s treasury.”
“But still, I will go with you.”
Gérard appeared for some reason reluctant to accept this offer. Honoré handed the letter to him; batting this away with the back of his fingers, Gérard said, “Keep it.”
So it was that Honoré, as he opened his portfolio―pleased, in fact, with the gift; his pleasure unmarred by Limolette’s contempt―exchanged for Gérard’s letter the three pastels of pretty girls, laying these out on the tabletop, one by one.
As he preferred to do such things, he had made a fixatif of egg white strained through a sieve; with this, and with a delicate, patient hand, he had touched his brush to the soft chalk. Each detail was preserved as he’d drawn it, but with the colors enriched and blended into the semblance of paint. Dry, the drawings had a gloss, as though done in oils. He would let Gérard choose.
But it was Limolette who got out of his chair and bent over the table. “What do you ask for these, Honoré?”
He thought of Amédée, and because the wound was still raw, spoke with a new conviction, daring to mention such a sum.
“Forty,” Limolette muttered, and stepped three times from the shade of the awning back to the table, holding each girl in turn up to the sun’s light. He discarded a freckled blond whose straw-colored gown Honoré had considered falsifying into a livelier hue. “I don’t want that one. But I will take the others.”
And to Honoré’s amazement…because he’d meant forty for the lot―Limolette paid him twice that amount.
He told himself he would not play coy with Gérard. He thought the topic had been dropped, and to raise it again would need a fresh approach…
The key was to start him. Honoré was sure that with a question or two, he could find a weakness…there must be some offer of help he could make, which Gérard would think better of refusing. When he counted the uses he might himself have made in Paris of Gilbert―
Gilbert, the only friend Honoré had known, who would do any sort of errand for him.
“Who gave you permission?” he asked.
This, as it came out, sounded peremptory, and Gérard did no more than narrow an eye at Honoré over the lip of his wine glass.
“Gérard,” he tried again, “have they not made a law…I have only heard this…one that prohibits a journalist to visit the headquarters of a general?”
He was seated at Gérard’s feet. Limolette’s apartment, having only a kitchen partitioned from this room, used both for sitting and sleeping, some dozen of the Confrérie de l’Émancipation sat on the carpet, as did Honoré, with his arms around his knees.
Limolette and his wife Halina had done their best; they had put out plates of fruit and biscuits, three bottles of wine, and two hard chairs borrowed from the neighbors. Gérard had one of these. That Limolette must therefore hold Gérard in some esteem surprised Honoré; the best seat, however…the Limolettes’ only upholstered armchair, had been reserved for M. Cattlebur. Cattlebur had known Friedrich Engels in London; he was a celebrity, and Honoré, invited to what Limolette called a meeting, expected him to give a talk.
On the afternoon of their transaction, Limolette, showing a spontaneous, amiable interest in Gérard’s friend, had fallen in step with Honoré as he left the Péquenotte.
“I have seen your Progressiste. I think you don’t know much about communism.”
The proposition seemed contradictory. If Limolette had seen the Progressiste, he ought to have read Honoré’s letter from the editor (always the first two columns, front page left). He would know, then, that Honoré’s views were socialist, and not extremely so; Limolette, on the other hand, sometimes did not mean what he appeared to say.
“Limolette, do you expect the revolution?” He lowered his voice to speak the inflammatory word, and thought how gratifying this prudence would have been to his father. “Or do you believe a government can ever be formed that would be…ours?”
Buffeted by a gust of wind, Limolette drew his purchases closer to his chest. “Consider, Honoré, what you ask. A tax collector, we will say…a man whose sinecure, in the new state, must be eliminated…or a farmer, who can no longer claim, so long as the people are starving, that ‘my land belongs to me, and I will plant what is most profitable to me’…
“Honoré, you ask such men to accept what they have never seen, for the benefit of those they have never met. They know what’s best for themselves, that comfortable type. And you expect these men will prefer your socialist compromises to a new beginning. They will not even do that. The bourgeoisie will cling to its power until it is driven from the last bastion. No, no one changes until he knows the past is dead. I am going to stop here.”
Honoré followed Limolette inside the pharmacy, out of which the communist agitator was employed, and earned good wages at, peddling cases of the proprietor’s tonic syrups. While he was expected be making his rounds, he spent his middays as he liked, drinking coffee and reordering the state of the world. Limolette slipped into the office.
He emerged empty handed. “Come home with me, and see where I live.”
On that day Limolette projected, but had not promised (“Cattlebur waits for the cur-dogs of the British foreign office to approve his passport”), this meeting, which Honoré now judged to be more salon than rally. He could not make out much of Cattlebur’s private conversation; the great man sat hidden by a semicircle of standees. Rather, Honoré tried, having given up hope of learning by proxy the master’s philosophy, and as he found Gérard had not yet left them, to burrow into Gérard’s good graces.
“Yes, when you have the power to make laws, and you have the power to make war, you have put yourself in a neat position,” Gérard answered him, at length. “I am not going to visit the generals. You see, Honoré, wherever the army camps, it must send to the countryside all around for provisions. So many hundreds coming and going, and each one with eyes and ears…no, I have no intention of being fed the official lies.”
“But then at the station you will be asked, or, I suppose, when you apply for a pass…”
Honoré thought about this. He had heard that exceptions to the new laws must be signed by the governor himself…but Trochu did not sit at a desk all day signing documents; there would be an underling, and an underling’s underling…
And the bureaucratic wheels, on these lower streets, turned at a pace such that even a Gérard Costa might grease them. “You will be asked,” he said again, not venturing to suggest a name he could not know. “What is your business, going to Chalons? Do you think, Gérard…anyone allowed to leave Paris might be watched?”
“Don’t hint at me!” Gérard stood up. “I am willing to be arrested. Even to be accused of treason and sentenced to die! And if so, Caesar will have toppled his own citadel. I act for the people.”
Though left round-eyed at this outburst, Honoré decided he did not feel insulted. He admired a show of courage (while it might not be that, exactly, this martyrdom no one had called for); but also, he noted Gérard had evaded his question.
He pictured a guardhouse cell lit by a guttering candle, Gérard composing his final message to the readers of L’Ilote. Honoré supposed that as a communist Gérard rejected the church; therefore, all offices of the clergy. No priest would be summoned, then, to help Gérard in this last request…he would need a deputy, a friend to act for him.
“Under martial law,” Honoré silently rehearsed, “obstacles can be commanded out of the way. You might be dead already, before even your mother has heard the news.” All this was promising, but Gérard, in the meantime, had got as far as the door. Honoré saw him there with Limolette, listening, his hand on the knob. Three or four others were on their feet as well, stirred by the stirring of Gérard. The meeting was breaking up.
Cattlebur rose from his chair. He approached, and as he did so, spoke to Honoré, standing where Gérard had stood. Cattlebur had taken Gérard’s point, but had been unable to see over the heads of his audience. His French was marked by a heavy emphasis on the unvoiced syllable.
“It is a circular form of reasoning, of course; one too often resorted to by the self-interested institutions of the capitalist state. This notion of treason. This notion,” Cattlebur added, “of capital crime.” He laughed. “Yes, when one thinks of the coinciding meanings, it is rather amusing.”
“Please, I know English,” Honoré told him.
She was not Mme Limolette, Halina; she had a last name of her own, the pronunciation of which, in the ten minutes of his first visit, had got past Honoré…but Limolette’s Polish wife was small and pretty, perhaps older than her husband. She was clad in dark brown, her own coloring also, hair and eyes, dark brown. She looked up at them both, and said to Honoré, “If you had told me! I would like a friend of my husband I can speak to. Say your name.”
He opened his mouth.
“You know, I apologize,” she went on, “but it’s no use, my French is so bad, everything I hear comes running together!”
“Madame, my name is Honoré Gremot.”
“Mr. Cattlebur,” she turned to the great man, “do you find the importation of raw materials from the colonies must be likely to distort the measure of employment due to such manufactories as create finished goods because…” She drew breath. “A rise in production of finished goods is determined by abundance of labor. But materials are a resource of…ah…geography―because the state may have the right of government over the colonies, but in fact they are controlled by mining trust, or plantation boss…”
Limolette laid a hand on Honoré’s arm. He had thought of something, the gesture said, and wished to detain his guest a moment. Gravitating to the sound of his wife’s voice, he’d needed only a few paces to reach their circle, and when Limolette joined them, Halina faltered. Cattlebur, forgetting himself, said to Limolette in English, “Your wife means to put me through my paces, sir. If she is anything like my own, who has long since surpassed her poor instructor in the devices of argument…”
He interrupted himself with a chuckle. Honoré watched Halina flush, her eyes suddenly wet at the corners. Limolette’s wife had inflicted on Honoré a roil of emotion; she’d forgotten his name, demanded it of him, snubbed him when he gave it―and had raised in him, with her excellent English, a stinging jealousy. He had only invited this conversation to invite the compliment; he had been told by everyone his own English was accomplished.
Yet at the sight of her tears, Honoré’s heart was with Halina. All she’d done was rush her words in eagerness. He knew this eagerness, the pain of its being brushed aside. He broke in, trying to catch her eye; again, she troubled him, by looking only at Limolette. “But, I think madame asks…does, you would say, a ship builder, who will need coal and iron only…eh bien, timber, I think―coal, iron and timber―does he not more easily move his works…to Africa, as you might suppose…”
Having constructed this much, he stopped, and to himself, said these words over again. This was rude, he knew, cutting short Cattlebur’s small story, making Cattlebur wait in turn (but the friend of Engels was not Honoré’s superior, and a hypocrite if he felt so).
He had copied Madame Gremot’s letter, as many of its phrases as he could recall, the signature and the address, onto the flyleaf of his English poetry book, a thing his father was certain never to look at. To Honoré, the winkling out of her meaning made a more satisfying mystery than why a cloud should be lonely, and in his fourteenth year―when it had been too late to recoup the cost of M. Bernheim’s fees; too late to return the much resented Wordsworth his tutor had insisted M. Gremot purchase (Bernheim, after resigning his post, had carried off his own books), Honoré became an enthusiast of the English language.
His father took one newspaper, the Journal de Bruxelles. Of this, Honoré read every word; of the feuilletons, and wistfully the descriptions of houses listed for sale, every word many times over. M. Gremot did not read fiction. Honoré’s father kept two books: a bible, which his children never saw him touch, and a guide to legal Latin, its proper usage and spelling, with the corresponding French, dog-eared. But under Bernheim’s tutelage, Honoré had filled three copybooks with English words; and had noted, next to each, its actual sense. This amounted to a small dictionary.
Then inspiration, on a day in early May, in the spring of 1865, had struck him like a blow…specifically, like “un coup de pistolet”―the phrase that had jumped out at him. Yes, the murder of the American president was news all over the world. Every British journal, its story sourced from the same telegrams, would print the same speeches and letters of sympathy, explain what a thing was in the same way, as did this journal of Belgium; this motto, for example, said to have been cried out by the assassin, sic semper tyrannis―emblazoned, the article told him, “aux armes de l’Etat de la Virginie”. In English it would be no different, once he’d followed the Latin clue to match the words.
But after a morning’s long walk from Schaerbeek to the Ville de Bruxelles, Honoré found himself thwarted by the mechanisms of the bourgeoisie. The reading room of the bookseller Louis Bercomber et Fils catered to patrons of the good hotels, and its rules were not those of the stalls where Honoré looked at books he could not afford to buy. Here, he would need to approach the attendant and ask for what he wanted; and feeling shy of this doubtful-eyed scrutiny, Honoré slid behind a chair, saw the attendant rise from his own―
To lower himself once more and remain seated, while from behind his desk, he watched Honoré. And Honoré, from his place of shelter, could see the top of a head, a pair of hands, and a newspaper. The words he saw printed there, as he peered across the nail-head trim of a leather wing, were English. He leaned closer. The reader of this newspaper sniffed, as though he smelled something unpleasant, swiveled in his seat to view Honoré; stood, and handed him the paper, saying, “By all means, sir.”
Gathering hat and umbrella from the table and receptacle, respectively, that provided places for them next to the exit, he left the reading room.
“Put that away! How did you get in here? No, no, not like that!”
The attendant, charging, snatched the Daily Mail from Honoré’s hands, began to refold it himself; looked up, and said, “Monsieur Bercomber, I couldn’t help it…I thought, for a moment, that he was a servant of Monsieur Stevens.”
“Turn out your pockets!”
The order came from Bercomber himself, who snorted at the emptiness of these, as though, if Honoré were not a thief, his time had been wasted coming into this room; then, his voice altering, he asked with some wonder, “Do you read English?”
“No. Yes. I read English, monsieur, but I don’t know it.”
The proprietor strode from the reading room without a word. Honoré, as he was being thrown out, and as this was the way to the street, followed. But Bercomber, holding up a hand, stopped him at the door, crouched and prodded about among a stack of books under the sales desk, emerging with a dark-bound volume, embossed: The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall.
“Lippard’s books have been somewhat popular…he is like Poe; but, by mistake, this is not in French. I will let you take it. Don’t come back.”
And at length, from his English researches Honoré had gained an insight (as well as a mental picture of the strange and crime-ridden place America must be). Mme Gremot―but really, he thought, Monsieur W. A. Gremot, for she’d said it herself: “He begs me to write”―had gone further in her letter than mere polite condolences; she had told his father in a careful way, in a subtle way, that he could not ask them for money, as he had his brother: “Your nephew Walter is his father’s only heir”. She had told his father that, but for courtesy’s sake, her husband might fairly have dealt with him through a lawyer; and that this was the place in which, on the scale of their friendship, the Belgian Gremots belonged.
Limolette smiled and ignored his wife; he ignored Cattlebur, having not understood him. He said to Honoré, “Come out to supper. Gérard will come too, and you, monsieur”—to Cattlebur―“my honored guest, will choose the restaurant; or, if you like to hear music…”
This trailing off was a prompt, and Cattlebur, reminded of his mistake, answered in French, “I won’t choose, if you’ll forgive me, being that I have only once before ventured to Paris; but I have had very good meals at my hotel.”
“They have a house act at the Nid des Voleurs. The songs are not as immoral as people say.” Limolette was still thinking of music. “But we may begin at your hotel. Honoré,” he added slyly, “will choose for us.”
They found Gérard waiting by a lamppost, breathing through his mouth as he did at anxious moments, and Limolette, in answer to Gérard’s frown, made explicit the slyness Honoré had noted. He rejected Cattlebur’s offer to be their host, this murmured with a quaver of poorly disguised apprehension―“I will ask that the expense be added to my tab.”
Continued from “added to my tab”
“No,” Limolette said. “Honoré has enough money to buy our supper…I have reason to know it. Not long ago, Gérard gave him lunch; today, he drank my wine, tonight, he will not mind paying what he owes.”
The proposition put this way, Honoré could not have replied other than, “No, certainly”.
When his pocketbook’s balance had―in little more than a week―risen by one hundred and twenty francs, he had settled his clothiers’ bill (and claimed his trousers), bought new brushes and pigments, handed over his delinquent rent…and found, for the second time in a short summer, the exuberance of wealth tempered by the reducing effects of expenditure. Limolette might call coffee and rolls lunch; Honoré did not, nor had he asked Gérard to pay for them. And this “owing” had been, of course, the reason for Limolette’s unexpected sociability. He saw now that, confronted with the invitation to meet Cattlebur, he ought to have begged off, and contented himself with Limolette’s not wanting to be his friend.
But he did have enough money, taking into account what he’d had to begin with, still nearly sixty francs. Or…somewhat less, after paying for the cab that took them to Cattlebur’s hotel.
Cattlebur, he was thankful to learn, had been frugal in his choice of lodgings; the hotel’s cuisine, despite Cattlebur’s endorsement, Honoré found unremarkable. They talked until ten o’clock. With the fixed idea that Honoré had asked him something, Cattlebur explained everything. Everything other than why, if a nation must purchase a commodity elsewhere; if those elsewhere controlled the trade in that commodity, the cost would not become prohibitive, thus to upend the Marxian scheme of equality for all. But at this hour Cattlebur left them, going up to his room.
It was past midnight when, under the mirrored ceiling of the Nid des Voleurs, after drinking both champagne and beer, and seated at a little group of tables drawn together for the benefit of Limolette’s friends (for the companionship of whom he had turned his back on Honoré and Gérard), Honoré roused himself from the doze he’d fallen into.
“Obstacles,” he told Gérard, “can be commanded out of the way…”
“Yes, it’s no use saying it again. Honoré, meet me Wednesday at the Gare de l’Est.”
He stood with his back to a partition wall, a little to one side of the queue; or rather, as the ranks of hopeful passengers sprawled outwards and mingled into an undifferentiated mob, within view of the nearest window where tickets might be purchased. So many pieces of luggage, trunks, baskets, loose collections of food, birdcages, winter wraps, framed prints, all things wanted or cherished, rested temporarily on the station floor, nudged ahead with the tip of a shoe or time-consumingly plucked up one by one, carried a few paces and dropped again (while other evacuees grunted, spat, swore, and picked fights), prevented anything like an orderly line from forming. The station teemed. Paris’s new governor meant to remove the useless mouths from the burden of his protection, while at the same time, suburban houses standing in the way of the city’s defenses had been ordered razed.
Hundreds were leaving; hundreds, with equal determination, it seemed, arrived. Uniforms could be seen everywhere. And yet, within this chaos, opportunities to escape the law must be rife. Honoré hoped they were. His satchel, into which he’d stuffed all he hadn’t sold (and had just managed to close by standing on it) was at his feet, the silver watch Gilbert had given him, drawn from his pocket and held at his waist, where it could be seen…where it might communicate, to any curious eye, an impression of “the man who cannot take his place, because he waits for a friend”. The friend was imaginary. Honoré looked at the watch with something between melancholy and resentment.
“You haven’t tried being on time,” Gilbert had said to him. “They say it’s easier to make a new habit in a new place.” By using the money Honoré had borrowed from him and repaid, and probably―given the quality of the watch―more of his own, Gilbert had not so much bought his friend a bon voyage gift, as got in the last word.
Honoré did not think, now the only train for Reims was soon to leave, that Gérard would appear. And Reims it must be. The rumor had flared up overnight, but persisted, and seemed undeniable; it had come from Halina, who’d blushed a vivid pink on opening her door to find Honoré there, and had, evincing some disgust at the suggestion she might, told him she did not know where Gérard was: “But the army has left Chalons, do you know?” Also from Gérard’s stepfather, who’d waved him off to Limolette in the first place, while displaying an inward satisfaction: “Neither of you will be going anywhere today.”
He heard the murmur of this same rumor among those who stood waiting to board what would need to be a very long train to accommodate so many. And recognizing themselves to have a battle on their hands, across the span people craned their necks to spot the cap of a rail official. Honoré had heard now of three funerals, each ticket-seeker mentioning this in turn, as though his affairs did not coincide oddly with any other man’s. One said he must give his niece in marriage…her father, he told the officer―with an unnecessary pathos―was dead, her bridegroom had only a day’s leave; what a shame if they were to stand aside for others, “…believing that I will soon arrive on another train, and to have waited too long! If, at the next skirmish, her young man were then…well, I won’t say an unlucky thing. But what a tragedy that you, monsieur, are able to prevent.”
All this was both entertaining and educational, but what Honoré wanted―knowing that at all costs he would have to board this train―was an uncomplicated dodge. If he could not make his way onto the platform, and that within a minute or two, he had made a bad mistake. He’d counted on Gérard’s seeing them both through. Gérard’s stepfather had influence in the city; vicariously, Honoré had counted on that as well.
And he’d lost the day he might have spent―had intended to spend―in hunting down Gérard; in firming him up, then, on the time and place of their meeting, the question he’d refused to answer.
Honoré had awakened, after his night at the Nid des Voleurs, feeling his eyelids scorched by the morning sun. Briefly, he’d lifted them. He was surprised, not knowing how it had come about, to find himself in his own bed. For hours, he’d lain immobile on top of the sheets, his stomach burbling and his head throbbing. Night had fallen once again before he could ease his feet to the floor, bend in stages to his hands and knees, and grope there for his clothes. He was haunted by the suspicion of too much hospitality. He had drifted through his restive afternoon and evening, through dreams populated by Limolette and his four friends. But it was no use searching now in the dark. He seemed to have gathered coins in every pocket, and had no light to count them by.
On that last day of Honoré’s second Paris sojourn, though feeling somewhat consoled by the inevitability of his mission (he had, all along, wanted to believe in his angel), he had therefore…with clammy skin, bloodshot eyes, but with hair neatly brushed…tapped at the door of Mme Hervillais—giving her his name at once, the moment her ice blue glare appeared in the crack. He’d got into the habit, since she never made an effort to recognize her tenants, of introducing himself to her each time, as though to a stranger. It was this indifference of hers Honoré mistrusted. More than half his money had gone…that had been the morning’s dismal reckoning; three times he’d stacked denominations and counted the sum of each. The coins were mostly small change.
“I put an envelope under your door, Madame Hervillais. Friday afternoon of last week. The nineteenth. Not long after lunch time. No…it could not have been later. My name was on the envelope. Honoré Gremot.”
Her mind might, for all he knew, toss aside a name so lightly. She had drawn the door wider and stood with one hand poised to shut it, the other in her apron pocket, her eyes hooded. Possibly, already she was bored.
“I wrote the amount on the outside…under my name…two weeks, fifteen francs. But I ask only for half, eight. Because I don’t want the room.”
“The last week of June.” Mme Hervillais counted, holding up two fingers, folding down each in turn. “The second week of August. You forget. And you can’t have the room anyway. I have given it to someone else.”
He saw a shutter close at the head of the queue. The clerk, the sous-chef, whatever the man’s title might be, exited the office from a side entry, crossed a vestibule, and left the building as well, the stark light of an overcast day flaring through the opening door, catching Honoré’s eye, inspiration catching fire with it. He took up his bag and hurried.
This, when to do so required zigzagging through a human tide, did not amount to speed; but Honoré, breaking free as he approached the vestibule, a dark box defined by three exits―none of which would have struck him as leading anywhere―found the door he sought unlocked. The clerk was immediately on the outside of it. Indeed, under a narrow, slanted roof that sheltered a paved walk, the clerk was embarrassingly close, tamping his pipe, a match in readiness between the two fingers of his right hand.
But he said nothing, only narrowed an eye at Honoré, who, unable to find better cover, withdrew behind a pillar that supported the roof. Gérard’s document was inside his waistcoat, bulking there in a hidden pocket, the buttons of which (as the tailor, with secretive pursed lips, had demonstrated for Honoré) were concealed under a seam.
He had been timid about carrying this paper openly. Martial law put into effect, no longer an abstraction suited to the flippancy that had seemed possible only a few days earlier, felt like a different sort of awakening…in a lifetime of poverty, Honoré had not met with this. He’d laughed at the sergents-de-ville, called their signals to him a game; and they, all the while, had been ready at a word from their commander to sweep the streets of undesirables.
But the man he was alone with worked for the railway, not the police.
Honoré’s inspiration had been this: that he would hold the paper in his hand, offer it mutely; if the clerk called it rubbish, he would shrug and say, “I picked this up from the floor. I don’t know who it belongs to.”
But, if by chance it were accepted―
He heard two short blasts from the train’s whistle.
He fumbled with his purse, stuffed as it was with coins, and needing to come out first. His fingers lost their grip and he heard it jingle to his feet. He bent to snatch it up; making, he thought, far too clumsy a business of what, as scheme alone, had seemed clean and simple. And he might yet have to invent a wasp, to explain the removing of his waistcoat.
“Not for less than fifty.”
A breeze Honoré had been too preoccupied to notice died, the smell of pipe tobacco rose, and he discovered the clerk at his side.
Fifty was impossible.
The clerk, with a keen, negotiating squint, met Honoré’s eye. “You haven’t got it.”
“Twenty.” Crouching now, to snag the handles of his bag, Honoré looked up into the clerk’s face, a subordinate appeal on his own.
The whistle sounded, its note held for several beats, and finished with another warning.
“Let me see that watch of yours.”
The third door, contrary to expectation, led directly onto the platform. The last two cars to be boarded were not wagons, but second class carriages. They were here at the end, Honoré thought, because they’d been reserved for these men who had no need of hurry, some of whom even now were unwilling to rise from their benches until they’d puffed away the last of their cigars…
Bespoke cars destined, he expected, to travel no further than some suburban siding, where they would be shunted off, possibly coupled to a different train. But, at the cost of twenty francs and the loss of Gilbert’s gift, wherever they were going, he was going with them.
He came tardy to Mignonne’s stall. Michelet was there already, with his back to the entryway and facing the horse, confidently explaining something about her tackle as he removed it. Honoré felt exhausted, as though he’d labored at some physical chore for the better part of two hours, rather than sit in a saddle; he sat now, sinking onto a bit of sticky flooring exposed under the broken roof to the rain.
“Ordinarily, then, you would hang these up in good order, that is an easy enough job, I would trust you to do it right the first time!” He heard Michelet’s short, angry laugh. Something clinked. Honoré looked up at a passing shadow, and found it had been cast over his closed eyelids by a stunted urchin, a boy of ten or seventeen who wore a ring of keys at his waist. “But we will not hang them up this afternoon, to find them stolen in the morning. No one will steal Mignonne; she is safe tied up here or anywhere. Hervé!”
Michelet fished in his pocket, pulling out a coin as he turned, and at the sight of Honoré, sequenced through surprise and dismay, settling on a baffled, wounded wrath. Hervé took coin, saddle, and bridle, and stumped off, swinging this last in a manner that did not look to Honoré’s eyes like good order.
“How long since I asked you if you felt well enough to go on…and you insisted you would not stop!” Then Michelet, having recounted this fictional solicitude, made a sudden exit, and over the walls Honoré could hear him grumbling, as he apparently paced the ruin’s perimeter. “No, there are no cabs on this street…I may have to leave him here.”
To fetch one, Honoré supposed. Otherwise from spite―but, feeling his muscles had stiffened even in the space of a brief rest, he put a hand against the wall, loosed a strip of paper, braced himself anew, and got up.
“The time has come. There is work to be done in Paris.”
Broughton handed Honoré a purse. “This contains your allowance. You are to purchase a rail ticket to Compiègne. You must travel alone. Will you look inside and tell me what you find?”
Honoré would have accepted any allowance with gratitude. The other news, he did not like. Without answering Broughton, he emptied the purse onto the table, and with a finger, separated ten silver pieces. “Here I see, fifty francs. And two gold coins, but I do not know them.”
“Those,” Broughton said, “are gold sovereigns. They are of value to you, for gold is a currency accepted everywhere.”
“But, why do you send me to Compiègne?”
Broughton took up the coins himself. He restored them to the purse; again, he handed it to Honoré. “It is the first stage, on the journey to Paris. Do you shake your head, Gremot, because you don’t want this?”
Honoré blinked. He caught hold of the purse at once, lest Broughton misunderstand him. “But, there is a shorter way.”
“One does not cross the line of a besieging army at one’s leisure.”
The point was left to linger. Honoré saw that his grasping of it was a condition, on which other things depended. He answered, “No, Monsieur Broughton.”
“Also, I have an appointment to keep in Compiègne. I have not made you familiar with the work I do in Paris, but I don’t mean to have secrets from you. I am carrying a contract to General Manteufel, one that will secure, as we hope, the English rights to his memoirs of the present war. General Manteufel has his headquarters at Compiègne. Gremot,” Broughton’s voice sharpened, “you pity yourself. You have not been so ill-treated that you need question the motives of those who are charitable to you. I have waited until I felt you had recovered sufficiently; and that I had instructed you sufficiently. It is no burden to travel alone. You have done so in the past. There are,” he added, “more conventional labors by which you may discharge your debt to Mr. Tweedloe. You have learned something about the care of horses in these last weeks…”
“No, I apologize.” Honoré sat in one of the chairs. “Tell me what day I should leave.”
“That you will yourself determine, by purchasing the ticket I have mentioned. And I expect you to keep an account of what you spend, and of what remains. Gremot, what are the three rules?”
They had not discussed such a thing. As on the day they’d visited Biencourt, Broughton had occasionally proposed a scenario.
A friend, whom you have not seen for many years, wishes to meet with you…
“Of course, your age being what it is, we may say, for many months. This friend enjoins you to the utmost secrecy. But the matter is urgent; you must without hesitation agree to the place he names―”
Honoré had thought of Gilbert; he had thought of his sister, Claudette. But why, he considered, do we believe that love can be measured by a willingness to rush off madly? Broughton made sense, though his suggestion had been oblique.
“Pay attention to my surroundings,” he said now.
Broughton sat also, in the chair opposite. His instructional manner was one of quiet expectancy; at such times, he did not speak, but waited with patience, allowing Honoré to solve the puzzle. Today, the habit grated. Why was he made to guess what Broughton, who―Honoré twisted his mouth, and brooded over the purse in his hands―did not mean to have secrets, could readily tell him?
“You said to me, keep an eye on the weather.”
“Well.” Broughton stirred. Sounding contrite, he explained, “I employed an English idiom. I hope you understand me?”
Honoré had at the time taken these words to refer to those natural cautions, known to all members of his class: Let your interrogator speak first; never give information you are not asked to give.
“I think so. And you said…” He stopped. Broughton had told him this rule when they’d spoken of Baum. And he’d remembered it, belatedly, when he’d met Captain Henning.
“Not to show on the outside what I know.”
This seemed poorly expressed, but Broughton smiled. “I will lend you a travel case. You have the afternoon before you. I would go at once to the station.”
Honoré did not know where the station was, but he was content to walk without direction along the streets of the town. He did pity himself, as Broughton accused. He was being launched on a journey alone, when an hour ago, he’d known nothing of it. He found himself tasked with purchasing tickets and minding accounts…soon, he would be tyrannized by a schedule. And for all that, Broughton had not told him what he was meant to do when his train arrived at Compiègne.
This, he argued inwardly, was not the same. Broughton might be correct in saying that Honoré had traveled by himself in the past, but, for his own purposes. He had not been tethered, held in restraint, until some event occurred; he had not been kept in the dark, waiting.