Authors: Andrew Miller
‘Exactly. And you have probably noticed that mine is not much sweeter. No, there’s no need for politeness. Anyone who spends time at les Innocents gets to be the same way.’
‘Is that what I have to look forward to?’
‘You are thinking of staying so long?’
‘I do not know how long I shall stay.’
‘You do not care to speak of your work.’
‘I am sure it would not interest you.’
‘No? I suspect it would interest me greatly, though I shall not press you on it now. We will speak of something else. Ziguette Monnard, for example. You had a good look at her?’
‘I sat across from her when we ate.’
‘You were not impressed? She’s one of the prettiest girls in the quarter.’
‘I’ll admit she’s pretty.’
‘Oh, you’ll admit it? How grand! You have someone at home, perhaps? Wherever home is.’
‘In Bellême, then. No, I can see you do not. Well, watch out, my friend. If you stay, they will certainly try to marry you to her.’
‘Why not? A young engineer. A confidant of the minister.’
‘I have never claimed to be his confidant.’
At the next table, a man with a network of silvery scars about his throat glances up from the backgammon board, looks at the young men, looks slowly back to his game.
‘And what of you?’ asks Jean-Baptiste. ‘They tried with you?’
‘Musicians are less eligible. People like the Monnards consider a musician little better than an actor.’
‘Her father runs a cutler’s shop. Can they afford to look down at musicians?’
‘It costs very little to look down on people. And yes, they considered me.’
‘You liked her?’
‘As one likes the company of any attractive woman. But with Ziguette, one must be careful.’
Armand scoops a gob of sweet cream from the bowl, sucks his finger, wipes his lips. ‘Ziguette grew up in that house. She has lived there all her life. In that air.’
‘That should make me wary of her?’
‘To marry Ziguette,’ says Armand, ‘would be like marrying the cemetery. It is more than simply a matter of breath. Now, little Marie . . .’
‘I’m not talking about marriage, of course.’
‘You? And Marie?’
‘Poor girls from the faubourg Saint-Antoine are freethinkers. Her mind might be as empty as the Saviour’s tomb, but she’s more modern than the Monnards will ever be. More than you too, perhaps. Don’t be offended. Anyway, I’ve half a mind to modernise you myself. The project has just occurred to me.’
‘And if I do not think I need instruction?’
‘From a church organist? It is exactly such an attitude we will need to root out if we are to secure you for the future. The party of the future.’
‘Such a party exists?’
‘It has no meeting place, no subscriptions, and yet it exists as surely as you or I. The party of the future. The party of the past. There may not be much time left to decide what side you are on. I think we should start by changing your costume. You feel a particular affinity with brown?’
‘You find some fault with my suit?’
‘Nothing. If you belong to the party of the past. I shall introduce you to Charvet. He will know what to do with you. Charvet is modern.’
‘And what is Charvet? A writer?’
Vexed, intrigued, tipsy, Jean-Baptiste makes what he hopes is a face expressive of scorn, but the organist has gone back to his study of the other faces in the café. When he has finished, he says, ‘I hope you don’t object to paying for this. And then we must find somewhere to eat. Nothing is more damaging to incipient friendship than brandy on an empty stomach.’
In the galleries, in the courtyard, the shoving, the shouting, the lifting of hats, the cocking of eyebrows, the tireless pursuing of something, anything, goes on with no sign that it will ever lose its momentum. Is
modern? And these people, are they the party of the future or of the past? Does one always know to which party one belongs? Can one be sure? Or is it, thinks the engineer, like his mother’s religion – some destined to be saved, others damned, and no sure sign either way?
They are burrowing through the crowd (occasionally having to advance sideways, occasionally having to stop or even retreat a little) when Armand clutches Jean-Baptiste’s coat again and steers him through the portal of Salon No. 7. In the lobby, a tightly stayed woman is perched on a stool behind a table on which there is nothing but a small tin and a bell.
‘You have to give her four sous,’ says Armand. Jean-Baptiste gives her four sous. She rings the bell. A man in a rose-tinted wig appears, holds back a rose-coloured curtain. Clearly, he is already well acquainted with Armand. They bow to each other like courtiers, though it is all mockery.
‘Just Zulima today,’ says Armand.
‘As you wish,’ says the man.
‘This gentleman,’ says Armand, gesturing to Jean-Baptiste with his thumb, ‘is from somewhere in Normandy. One day he’ll be the greatest engineer in France.’
‘Naturally,’ purrs the man. He leads them along a softly lit corridor. On either side, heavy drapes conceal what are, presumably, the entrances to rooms, but the last drapes have been imperfectly drawn and Jean-Baptiste, pausing, has a glimpse of a man, part of a man, a naked arm and naked leg lashed to a cartwheel, a face, heavily bearded, one large eye wide in a wild stare. Who was it meant to be? Damiens? Damiens who they spent half a day killing in the place de Grève for grazing the king with a penknife? Racked him, cut him, poured lead into his wounds, flogged horses to rip his limbs from their sockets, though the horses could not do it – poor innocent beasts – until the executioner cut through some of the dying man’s muscle. Thousands, it was said, looking on that day from the buildings around the square . . .
At the end of the corridor, the guide is waiting for him. He lifts another curtain. Jean-Baptiste stoops, passes under his arm.
‘Zulima,’ begins the man, breaking into speech as if he was some manner of automaton, ‘was a Persian princess who died, like Cleopatra, from the bite of a viper. She was but seventeen years of age and unhappy in love. Her purity –’ another, finer curtain is drawn back – ‘and the arts of the Persian priests have preserved her perfectly for more than two hundred years.’
She is lying on a platform that is half catafalque, half daybed. There are two candles by her feet, two more by her head. Her body is wrapped in a shroud, a winding-sheet of some diaphanous stuff – tulle, organza, who knows. She is nubile. She is perfect. The young men stand either side of her and gaze. The older man waits by her feet, head bowed as though in prayer.
‘Remind you of anyone?’ whispers Armand.
‘No one,’ says Jean-Baptiste, but he knows who the organist has in mind. There is indeed, in the wax face, the ample figure, a marked resemblance to Ziguette Monnard.
From the Palais they go to an inn near the Bourse to eat. They are seated at a common table and fed the ten-sous dinner of bread soup and boiled beef. A brisk fire burns at the back of the room. They are drinking wine, red wine that is neither good nor bad. They are drinking and talking, their cheeks growing red. Armand, with no sense of shame or awkwardness, confesses to having been abandoned in the baby-wheel outside the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés. There, his talent brought him to the notice of the intendants who, in turn, brought him to the notice of the commissioners, those charitable men and women who liked to go fishing among the scabby, shaven-headed children who lived and died in those halls, for one worth saving.
‘There are no youthful illusions in such a place. You do not mistake the world’s character. By the age of seven we were all as cynical as abbots.’
Together they agree that the losing of illusions is an indispensable preparation for those who hope to rise in the world. On a third bottle, they confide to each other that they are ambitious, madly ambitious, and that through luck and hard work they intend to die famous men.
‘And wealthy,’ says Armand, picking a shred of beef from between his teeth. ‘I do not intend to die famous only for my poverty.’
Jean-Baptiste speaks of his former patron, the Comte de S—, of his two years at the Ecole des Ponts, of Maître Perronet, of the bridges he dreams of building, structures light as thought spanning the Seine, the Orne, the Loire . . .
Wine and unsuspected depths of loneliness have produced in him an effusiveness he would not, sober, trust or like in another. Nearly, very nearly, he tells Armand what he is in Paris to do, for surely Armand would be impressed, would see what he himself (in the ruby light of tavern wine) has come to see – that destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in
, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past! And would Armand then not have to admit that he, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, engineer, belonged, beyond any quibbling, to the party of the future, indeed, to its vanguard? Or would he be alarmed? Horrified? Furious? What exactly is Armand Saint-Méard’s relationship with the bishop? What has His Grace been told of the minister’s plans?
Outside, they piss against a wall, button themselves and sail on through what is left of the afternoon. They are still talking, still gabbling about politics, Paris, the irreducible dignity of the peasants (
But I know about the peasants
, Jean-Baptiste wants to say,
I’m related to dozens of them
), but neither is really listening to the other any more, and anyway, he is being urged inside again – immediately feeling more drunk inside than out – and presented to a man, a kind of exquisite monkey, who is, it transpires, Charvet the tailor.
The shop, if such a space could be called by so modest a name, is fitted out with dainty furniture and oil paintings and is not remotely akin to the pungent atelier where Jean-Baptiste’s father sewed his gloves. No obvious sign of
here at all, other than the table by the window where a pair of young men are dreamily cutting lengths of some material that glitters and shivers like spring water.
Charvet wastes no time. A few words from Armand, a shrug from Jean-Baptiste, are all he needs to begin. He circles the engineer, touching, tugging, stepping back to better assess the length of a leg, the slight roundness of the shoulders, the slender waist. It is not unpleasant to be the focus of such intense professional surveillance. Jean-Baptiste does not even notice when Armand slips away. The whole day has had some strange impetus of its own. He is past trying to wrestle it. He will think about it later.
‘I believe, monsieur,’ says Charvet, ‘I believe that we shall be able to do something very interesting with you. You have, if you will allow me, the figure necessary for the new styles. You are not one of those portly gentlemen I am forced to disguise more than dress. You, monsieur, we may dress. Yes. Something that will flow with the natural movements of the body. Something a little more informal, though, of course, in its way, perfectly correct . . . We must tell a story, monsieur. We must tell it clearly and beautifully. I will dress you not for 1785 but for 1795. Cédric! Bring the gentleman a glass of the Lafitte. Bring the bottle. And now, monsieur, if you will do me the honour of following me . . .’
Two hours later, Jean-Baptiste is examining himself – examining someone – in a large, brilliantly polished oval mirror. He is wearing a suit of pistachio silk, a silk lining of green and saffron stripes. The waistcoat, cut at the top of the thigh, is also pistachio, with modest gold-thread embroidery. The cuffs of the coat are small, the collar high. The cravat – saffron again – is almost as large as Armand’s. For a long time, Charvet and Cédric have been pulling pins from between their lips, have been snipping and sewing and handling him with that freedom reserved to their trade, to that of body servants, surgeons and executioners. They are almost done. They stand back, careful to exclude themselves from the mirror’s scope. They look at him looking at himself. It is, Jean-Baptiste is perfectly aware, far too late to refuse the suit or even to criticise it. To do so would be to denounce not just Charvet but the future itself. Impossible! He will take it and he will pay whatever Charvet wants. It turns out to be a lot. He blushes. He does not have such an amount on him. The tailor spreads his hands. Of course, of course. Tomorrow will be quite soon enough. But there is something else. Is the young gentleman a young gentleman of an
persuasion? Aha! He had thought it all along, but one does not wish to appear impertinent.
He glides to the gleaming walnut of the escritoire, removes from one of its drawers a little picture in a frame and brings it to Jean-Baptiste. ‘Voltaire,’ he says, and smiles at the picture as if, alone, he might address fond words to it. ‘You see what he is wearing? The robe? It is known as a banyan. Intellectual gentlemen find it something they can barely do without. I have one here in red damask. I would not mention it to most of my customers; it would not be understood. But in your case . . .’
‘Yes,’ says Jean-Baptiste.