A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Readers, A Figure from the Common Lot is off the blog, as I’m preparing a fresh edit; next to send it out for consideration by publishers. But I’ll leave behind a sample, below.
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.
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 have nothing to fear.”