Authors: Andrew Miller
He is twenty minutes easing off the nightcap, then the bandage with its damp, pink underside. His hair has been chopped, clumsily tonsured, but however he angles his head, he can see almost nothing of the wound itself except an ugly patch of discoloured skin and, poking from it like a single gross hair, a strand of black thread.
He looks for his clothes, the working suit he was wearing the day before the night Ziguette Monnard came in to murder him. He cannot see it. It has been tidied away or taken away. Spoiled? Splashed with his blood, with blood from the weapon, the thing, the metal thing, the name of which (a spark of panic in his chest) he has also lost? How can a man think at all if he does not have the words to think with? What can guide him if not the words?
He goes to his trunk, lifts the lid. The shock of colour, of light off colour, makes him flinch, but he is relieved to hear ‘green’ in his head, and ‘silk’, and even ‘pistachio’. He carries the suit to the bed, lays it there, regards it a while, then climbs wearily inside it. Let this be the answer, then. He will simply follow the world. The world, the things of the world, will prompt him. He will do what they suggest. It will not matter if he can name them or not. He will be like a child running after a ball bouncing down steps. Perhaps that is what he always did. He cannot quite remember.
When he is dressed, he looks for the banyan, the tarboosh, the rented wig, the paper they were all wrapped in, wraps them again, a large, clumsy parcel. He puts on his shoes, his riding coat. With teeth clenched he settles his hat on his head as if the wound might be oppressed simply by a shadow. He goes downstairs. No one sees him. The kitchen door is open but the room is empty. He glances at the cellar door, resists the urge to try it, opens the street door, narrows his eyes against the light, stands a full minute with his back against the wall of the house, gathering energy, courage, whatever he will need to go on. He dreads being recognised, stopped, spoken to. He assumes some version of the story is already in circulation, that he is not just the engineer now but the man the Monnard girl attacked, the man who must, in some way, have provoked her. He watches two boys come up the street whipping a toy, a hollow circle of wood. He lets them pass, then shoves off from the wall, launches himself.
At Gaudet’s he gets a shave. He is the only customer. When he comes in the barber is sitting in his chair reading the
Mercure de France
and nibbling a fingernail. The shave is simple sensual pleasure. The wound, of course, is not mentioned, though Gaudet has ample time to study it. Instead, the barber speaks of the town, the quarter, the price of things, the recent strikes. None of it requires any comment from Jean-Baptiste. He lets the man chatter, lets him work, is grateful to him.
‘I have been ill a while,’ he says at last.
‘But you are well again now,’ says Gaudet, brushing the brown hairs, the little grey ones, from the engineer’s shoulders. ‘You will be quite your old self again soon.’
The barber grins at him through the medium of the mirror, shrugs elegantly, then folds the sharp thing, the bright thing, into its curved handle.
With the parcel in his arms, the cold air keen over chin and cheeks, he walks up past the Company of the Indies and the rue des Bons-Enfants to the place des Victoires. After being bedridden for two weeks the walk should have done him in; instead it seems to recover him a little. He has no difficulty remembering the address he wants. He shoulders the door. A bell rings. Charvet in his velvet pumps is crossing the polished floor of the shop. He stops, raises his little eyebrows, then tilts from the waist, stiffly.
‘Monsieur l’Ingénieur, is it not?’
There is a chair by the door. Jean-Baptiste drops his parcel onto its seat. The parcel starts to unwrap itself as though it contained something living. ‘I should like to have my old suit again,’ he says. ‘The one I wore when I came to you with Saint-Méard.’
Charvet looks at his assistant, then back to the engineer. ‘Your old suit? But that was sold, monsieur. To a gentleman in trade, I believe. Is that not so, Cédric?’
The assistant confirms it.
Jean-Baptiste nods, lets his gaze travel slowly round the shop. On one of the wooden mannequins (an adjustable torso on a wooden pillar) is a suit of neatly cut black wool. He goes up to it, handles the cloth, takes in the size. ‘This, then. This will do.’
,’ says Charvet, speaking now as if explaining something to a child, not a good child but a foolish one, ‘you will appear like a Geneva parson. It is here only because it is necessary to show a range of styles. A wide range, you understand. But for you, monsieur, it will not . . .’
‘And this,’ says Jean-Baptiste, unbuttoning his coat to show a line of green silk, ‘I have no use for any more.’
Charvet makes a curious bridling movement, lengthens his neck, blinks extravagantly. ‘Yet I remember, monsieur, how well you liked it when you first had it.’
‘You do?’ It is a genuine question.
‘You wished to be more
à la mode
‘Exactly. You . . . cannot recollect?’
‘I remember being drunk. I remember being flattered.’
‘It is still an excellent suit.’
‘It is a suit I no longer want. And I have brought the banyan back,’ says Jean-Baptiste. ‘The rest too. There. On the chair.’
Charvet and the assistant look at the chair, at the parcel, the tongue of red damask lolling from the paper.
They fit him with the black. With a few tucks the fit is surprisingly snug, the colour immediately restful, though it is true that he does indeed look something like a Geneva parson. Charvet leaves the alterations to his assistant. He stands to one side, arms folded. Now and then he glances, with some disgust, at the engineer’s battered head.
‘This suit,’ he says at last, ‘may be simple, but it is not inexpensive. And the other has been much worn, has, I see, some stains on the sleeve. Grease stains if I am not mistaken. Grease or something worse. I will be forced to sell it at a discount. A considerable—’
‘That old one of mine you had,’ says Jean-Baptiste, carefully shrugging himself into his riding coat again and starting to button it, ‘the one you sold to a man in trade. It was worth more than the whole of your shop.
I recollect perfectly.’ He looks at Charvet until Charvet turns away. He goes to the door. The assistant hurries to open it for him. Sheer force of habit.
In the pocket of his coat he has the key to the cemetery, to the door from the rue aux Fers. With his hands in his pockets, he holds the key in a fist and crosses the market. He wonders if he is hungry – he has eaten nothing but some soup for breakfast, a medicinal broth when the day was still half dark. He pauses by the entrance to one of the fish sheds. The market is different to him in some way, strikes him differently, though he cannot say exactly how. It looks the same – same stalls, same red-faced, raw-fingered stall-holders, same hoarse shouts, same muck. He goes inside the fish shed, stands in the dripping shadows among pools of water bright with fish scales, breathes deeply. On the lining of his nose there is a sensation of coolness, of dampness, but nothing that could be called a smell, a stink. So that too has gone! It is at least a symptom he can, without risk of repercussion, confess to Dr Guillotin . . .
And then he is there, the rue aux Fers, where brown smoke coils above the cemetery wall and the black letters – still fresh-looking – are waiting for him: ‘
KING SLUT QUEEN BEWARE
BECHE IS DIGGING A HOLE BIG ENOUGH TO BURY ALL VERSAILLES
Is he reading or remembering? He is not sure. What he does know, does not need to question, is that when he first saw it,
was here, almost exactly where he is now, standing with her loaf of bread, a piece of which she offered to him and which he snatched from her like some big, awkward bird, a big, yellow-eyed gull. And then afterwards, in the charnel with Armand, whom he meant to upbraid, to accuse of frivolity, of undermining him, he was himself accused, told he was concerned solely with his professional character, that his politics were the politics of ‘undrawn conclusions’.
Had he understood what Armand meant by such a phrase? There had not been much opportunity to think on it. First that business with the men’s pipes, then Lecoeur and Armand coming back drunk. That and a hundred other worries. But yes, he had understood well enough. Had felt the justice of it. Had resented it . . .
The door of the cemetery opens. A man – a wiry man with a flow of yellow beard that looks more youthful, more vigorous than the face it hangs from – steps into the street. When he sees the engineer he stops, tenses, stares.
‘Block?’ says Jean-Baptiste, stepping closer. ‘Block?’
Block nods. Under his arm he has two rolled sacks, bread sacks from the dust of flour on them.
‘You are sent on an errand?’
Block nods again.
‘Jeanne has sent you?’
‘You have your strength back.’
They look at each other a moment, on their faces some fleeting recognition of shared experience, of dissolution and uncertain reassembly. Then, with a brushing of shoulders, they pass each other by.
Inside the cemetery, the men are gathered about a pit close to the north wall. Pit eight? Nine? A man lifting a clogged, mushroom-brown pelvis onto the bone wall sees him first. He stops, straightens (as far as a miner can). Lecoeur follows the man’s gaze, lets out a yelp of delight and hurries over, speaking so rapidly, so confusedly, his words seem to overlie each other. Are those tears in his eyes? From the smoke perhaps. Just the smoke.
The men working the surface gawp. One speaks a word, drops it like a pebble to his fellows below. The engineer greets them. He has no trouble bringing their names to mind. Agast, Everbout, Cloët, Pondt, Jan Biloo, Jacques Hooft, Louis Cent, Elay Wyntère . . . He is glad of them, surprised at how unaffectedly glad he is to see them again. He asks them to go on with their work. They go on.
‘We have not,’ says Lecoeur, confidentially, ‘made all the progress I would have wished for. We finished two this last week –’ he gestures to where they have dug – ‘and would have finished this had one of the sides not collapsed. It was fortunate the men were on their break. I even feared for the cemetery wall.’
‘You were using the . . . the wooden . . . the shapes . . . the shapes that hold the sides?’
‘The box-crib? I had hoped it would not be necessary. The weather has been tolerably dry. It was an error, of course. I am sorry for it.’
‘It is no great matter. We can shore the wall with the earth. A ramp of earth. Then put the crib in place.’
‘Yes,’ says Lecoeur. ‘That will be best.’
‘The men have eaten their midday meal?’
‘Some hours ago. It is, I think, past three o’clock.’
‘I had not realised.’
,’ says Lecoeur, gleefully. There are little white crusts at the corners of his mouth. His lips, chapped by the wind, look sore. ‘You are perfectly recovered?’ he asks.
‘I am told I have a thick skull,’ says Jean-Baptiste. ‘And you?’
‘You are well?’
‘Oh, have no unease on my account. We Lecoeurs are a leathery breed.’ He laughs. ‘I dare say I could wrestle a bear. Were there some need to.’
‘Or an elephant?’
‘I have just thought of it. An elephant. I do not know why. Have we spoken of elephants before?’
‘I cannot . . .’
‘It is not important.’
For almost an hour Jean-Baptiste commands the work from a quarterdeck of winter grass; then, his limbs beginning to finely tremble, he excuses himself and crosses towards the sexton’s house.
Jeanne is standing at the table slicing dried sausage, leaning her whole weight over the knife. Armand is in Manetti’s chair, a book of music on his lap, big creamy pages, black staves, thousands of dancing notes. He is frowning with concentration, his fingers playing the bones of his knees. He looks up at Jean-Baptiste, grins. ‘Well, well,’ he says. ‘Well, well, well.’
‘You must sit,’ says Jeanne, putting down her knife and pulling a stool from under the table. Jean-Baptiste sits, heavily, shuts his eyes a moment, then slowly removes his hat.
‘You are very pale still,’ she says.
‘He was always pale,’ says Armand.
‘You should be at home,’ says Jeanne, going quickly to the hearth, where a coffee pot sits on a tile by the fire.
‘Home,’ says Armand, ‘is where they cracked his head open. No doubt he feels safer in a cemetery.’
The coffee is only lukewarm and without its aroma it has no taste, but Jean-Baptiste gulps it and holds out the bowl for more. ‘Your grandfather?’ he asks.
‘He is resting,’ says Jeanne, brown eyes flickering shyly over the engineer’s grey. He wonders what she is thinking. The last he can remember of her, of any of them, is going into the church for Armand to play the organ. Was that the night he was attacked? The night before? The week before?