Authors: Andrew Miller
Every day Jean-Baptiste forces himself to go into the cemetery, to walk inside the walls, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of the girl, who speaks of the dead beneath their feet as if of some vast extended family. She even pretends to be able to identify many of the bones that litter the ground – that jawbone belonging to a Madame Charcot, that femur from a Monsieur Mericourt, a farrier who died of a cold.
For his part, Jean-Baptiste prefers not to think of bones as having owners, names. If he has to start treating them as former people, farriers, mothers, former engineers perhaps, how will he ever dare sink a spade into the earth and part for all eternity a foot from a leg, a head from its rightful neck?
On the rue de la Lingerie, his evenings with the Monnards turn out not to be quite as devoid of pleasure as he at first had anticipated. With Monsieur Monnard, he talks a vague, guarded politics. Taxes, shortages, the national finances. Monsieur is, unsurprisingly, no liberal. He speaks slightingly of Voltaire, of Rousseau, of head-in-the-cloud ideas, the salons, the agitating. He is, it seems, in favour of order, firmly imposed if necessary. Of trade too, the busyness and respectability of shopkeepers. In reply, Jean-Baptiste confines himself to general remarks about the desirability of reform, the sort of comments nobody but the most reactionary aristocrat could be troubled by. Things somehow getting better and fairer, though how, practically, it can be done, other than by some form of intellectual radiation, he does not know. Does anyone? He nearly mentions, one evening, his old utopia, Valenciana, but bites it back. A man like Monnard who reads only the newspaper could not be expected to understand, and anyway, the recollection of those nights beside the never-quite-adequate coal fire in Lecoeur’s parlour is not without a certain awkwardness. That younger, more garrulous version of himself, their two heads hung close in the room’s shadows, the strange urgency of it all . . .
With Madame, he discusses the intricacies of the weather. Did the wind blow somewhat harder today? Was it colder in the morning or in the afternoon? What is Monsieur Baratte’s opinion of the likelihood of snow? Does he
for snow? All kinds of snow?
And then there is Ziguette. Conversations with Ziguette – sometimes at the table, sometimes on the settle by the fire or sitting by the window overlooking the cemetery – require greater effort. He tries music, but she knows even less of it than he does, has not heard of Clérambault or any of the Couperin family. Theatre is equally hopeless – neither of them knows much – and as for books, it is evident she makes no more use of them than her parents. He asks about her own history; the subject seems to bore her. She asks about his work and he is forced to obfuscate. He wonders if she is in love, not with him, of course, but with someone. He wonders if he desires her. He is not quite sure. His interest in her seems no more marked than his interest in the little hairy-armed servant who brings in the supper plates. As for
. . . could he? The daughter – the very pretty daughter – of a well-set-up Paris shop owner, most people would think it a fair match, one that offered advantage to both parties. He conducts little thought-experiments, sometimes while speaking to her, in which the two of them are together in a room, a cabriolet, a canopied bed, her breath made sweet by his eradication of the cemetery, a parcel of her father’s money in a locked box underneath the bed . . . Such thoughts are not disagreeable and yet the images are thin as tissue. None of it persuades.
As for the Monnards’ food, it goes on as mysteriously unpalatable as ever. Even an apple tart manages to put him in mind of those little silvery mushrooms that grow in the dampest corners of a cellar, and yet he always clears his plate. It is, in part, a practice instilled in him in earliest childhood by the back of his father’s hand, and later confirmed by the sticks and sanctions of the brothers of the Oratorian Order in Nogent, but in part, after nearly five weeks in the house, he is simply getting used to it, used to it all. And when supper is over, he retires to his room, the banyan, a page or two of Buffon. Then into bed, candle out, the catechism. He does not ask himself if he is happy or unhappy. The question is postponed. On the roof of his mouth, he has a pair of ulcers, which, lying in the dark, he probes with the tip of his tongue. Has
breath turned? Would he know if it had? He cannot, for the life of him, think who he might count upon to tell him.
On the 15th, he meets again with Louis Horatio Boyer-Duboisson. It’s almost dusk and they are in a field behind the inn where they met before. The horses, five of them, stand in light rain, their halters held by two soldiers, neither of whom, in their ill-fitting uniforms, look more than children.
Jean-Baptiste walks round the horses, then asks that they be walked round him. His father had a good eye for horses. Perhaps the knack has been passed on in the blood, but standing there in the drizzle, he feels he is doing nothing more than imitating his father’s posture, those little movements of the eye and mouth that tokened judgement.
‘I will not pay for any that are lame or sick.’
‘Naturally,’ says the officer. ‘Who would?’
‘And you will stable them until I need them?’
‘They will be waiting for you.’
The young soldiers are left in the rain while Jean-Baptiste and Boyer-Duboisson retire to the inn to finish their business. They ask for a private room and are shown one. Jean-Baptiste makes a down payment of a hundred livres. He asks for a note of receipt. The officer cocks an eyebrow, then smiles as though remembering who he is dealing with, what rank of man. They drink a glass of indifferent wine, then walk out to where, in the field, the horses and the boy soldiers stand together like a single complicated creature dressed in a coat of dull rain.
Two letters arrive. They are handed to Jean-Baptiste on the stairs by Marie. She has a small but effective range of facial expressions, all of them faintly unsettling.
He thanks her, takes the letters to his room. On the corner of the first, there is a soot-black thumbprint. He breaks the seal. It is from Lecoeur. The handwriting, scattered with ink blots and looking as though it had been set down at great speed while riding on a horse, is, in parts, illegible, but its drift is plain enough. How delighted he was to hear from his old friend! Life at the mines is quite as disagreeable as it ever was, though now without the solace of intelligent company. The new managers – no one seems to last much longer than a year – are feebly educated, narrowly commercial, while the miners and their terrifying wives continue to live like half-tamed dogs. As for hiring them, there is the usual surplus of labour and much hardship attending upon it. Thirty men, or sixty, should present no difficulty. What is this project so tantalisingly dangled? In Paris too! Might there be need of someone who knows the men, who can direct them about their tasks efficiently? Someone conscientious, discreet? A fellow philosopher no less?
The other letter, on good paper and written in an irreproachable script, comes from someone called de Verteuil at the Academy of Sciences. The matter concerns certain preparations being made at a quarry near the Porte d’Enfer, south of the river, for the reception of the remains removed from the church and cemetery of les Saints-Innocents. A house has been acquired, its cellar steps extended to reach the old workings, and in the garden there is a well with a circumference above three metres that empties into the same workings, which are tolerably dry and quite suitable for the purpose. When everything is made ready, the bishop will consecrate the relevant passages and chambers. Once this is done, Monsieur l’Ingénieur will be free to commence the first transports. Would Monsieur l’Ingénieur like to give his estimate to the number of bones that may be expected?
Jean-Baptiste folds the letter, places it inside his notebook. The number of bones? He has not the faintest idea.
Before he leaves for Valenciennes, he finds Armand and tells him everything. He is not used to carrying secrets, and the undisclosed truth sits in his gut like one of the Monnards’ savoury jellies. It is, he knows, the inescapable influence of his mother’s religion, that deadly emphasis on conscience, on tireless moral book-keeping. It is also the desire to offer something to the one person in Paris he has any reason to think of as a friend, for they have met together three or four times since that first day, have confirmed their interests in each other, their pleasure in the other’s difference. And anyway, all of it must come out soon enough. Better now than when thirty wild-eyed miners troop through the church with picks and hammers.
He finds Armand (the middle of a cold morning) on the rue Saint-Denis, the organist bantering with a shrimp-girl, and now and then – without taking his eyes from the girl’s – reaching up to help himself to one of the little pink bodies on the tray on her head. He greets Jean-Baptiste, takes his arm, walks him up and down the street, listens to his clumsy preface, then interrupts him to point out a pair of mournful dogs copulating in the gutter outside a hatter’s shop and, before Jean-Baptiste can continue his confession, invites him to come and eat that night at his lodgings.
‘Lisa’s brats will be there, but the food is always decent. Certainly it does not taste of cemeteries. And there will be some company later.’
They arrange to meet by the Italian fountain at seven sharp. Jean-Baptiste is there ten minutes before the hour but has to wait another forty before Armand appears. There is no apology, no excuse. They set off together, striding from one little bay of light to the next, while the organist, waving his long, white fingers, delivers a panegyric in rags of Greek and ecclesiastical Latin on the beauty, the sheer
, of his landlady’s breasts.
The rue des Ecouffes is a twenty-minute march in the direction of the place Royale and the Bastille. On the ground floor of the house is a shop specialising in the manufacture and repair of mirrors, and the two men pause a moment in front of one of these in the window, though it is too dark to see more than the briefly arrested suggestion of themselves. They grope their way up three flights of steep wooden steps to the door of the apartment. Lisa Saget and the children are in the kitchen. Here there is light, a fire, the smell of food. Armand greets his landlady with a loud kiss on her brow, ruffles the children’s hair. There is a chicken roasting on a spit; the girl has the work of turning it. She glances at Jean-Baptiste, smiles at Armand. Other than for the flatness of her chest, she is the perfect miniature of her powerful-looking mother.
‘Monsieur Baratte,’ says Armand, speaking into the cupboard in which he is searching for glasses, a bottle, ‘who has my old billet at the Monnards’.’
It is evident the woman has heard of him. She is sitting at the end of the kitchen table doing something with the consumable part of the chicken’s innards. She looks up and looks him over, this grey-eyed man lost in a green coat. ‘Is he eating with us?’ she asks.
‘Of course,’ says Armand. ‘He hasn’t had a decent meal since coming to Paris.’
Jean-Baptiste takes a stool at the table. He is facing the fire, the little girl. Her brother, scratching his backside, watches her from behind Armand’s shoulder, her envious work by the food.
‘So what of the Monnards?’ asks the woman, busy with her knife.
‘I believe they are quite well,’ says Jean-Baptiste, aware that is not really what he has been asked.
‘We shall need to find him somewhere else,’ says Armand, ‘if he’s planning to stick around.’
‘And is he?’ asks the woman.
‘Who knows,’ says Armand. ‘He doesn’t say much.’
Jean-Baptiste studies his pistachio cuffs, wonders if the table is quite clean, if it would be wise to take off his coat.
‘I shall stay for a time,’ he says. ‘I cannot tell yet how long.’
‘I could not live on a cemetery like that,’ says the woman. ‘I cannot think what kind of people do it, year after year. Bad enough having Armand coming back with the smell of the place on him.’
‘She washes me with lemons,’ says Armand. ‘With a soap made of sage leaves and ashes. Smokes me with rosemary . . .’
‘Would it not be good,’ says Jean-Baptiste, ‘if the place was removed?’
‘Removed?’ The woman snorts. ‘And how do you remove a cemetery like les Innocents? You might as easily remove the river.’
‘It could be done,’ says Jean-Baptiste quietly. ‘Either could be done.’
Armand, who has been examining the boy’s scalp, parting the brown curls in search of vermin, pauses and looks across.
‘Is that what you are up to? The cemetery?’
‘It will not be easy, of course,’ says Jean-Baptiste. ‘It will take many months.’
‘He’s like the rest of your friends,’ says Lisa. ‘Tell you the moon’s a bowl of soup if they think anyone could be made to believe it.’
‘Yet to me,’ says Armand slowly, ‘he looks perfectly serious.’
‘It can be done,’ says Jean-Baptiste. ‘It will be done.’
‘The whole cemetery?’ asks Armand.
‘The cemetery. The church.’
‘It will not be touched for a while yet. Perhaps for as long as a year.’
‘So,’ says Armand softly, ‘the moment has come.’
‘I would have preferred to tell you sooner. I was instructed to keep the matter to myself.’