Authors: Andrew Miller
Over Paris, the stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky. The temperature is falling. In an hour or two the first frost flowers will bloom on the grass of parade grounds, parks, royal gardens, cemeteries. The streetlamps are guttering. For their last half-hour they burn a smoky orange and illuminate nothing but themselves.
In the faubourgs of the rich, watchmen call the hour. In the rookeries of the poor, blunt figures try to hide in each other’s warmth.
At the Monnards’, in the box room under the slates, the servant Marie is kneeling in the dark. She has rolled up the rug and has her eye to the knothole above the lodger’s room, the lodger’s bed. She watched the musician like this too, but she did not make the hole. She found it with her toe a week after she was taken on.
The air from the lodger’s room rises in a warm, slightly smoky column that makes her eye itch. He has had a fire tonight, and it still burns, enough at least for her to see him by, his figure under the covers, his pale mouth, the softness around his shut eyes. On the table by the bed is an open book, a length of brass for measuring. Implements for writing.
What she likes to see is the moment, the precise moment when they fall asleep. She is, in her way, a collector, and while more fortunate, more moneyed girls may collect thimbles or fancy buttons, she must collect what is free. She has to be careful, of course. The little hole must not betray her. They must not look up and see above them the liquorice shimmer of a human eye.
This one, the new one, the grey-eyed foreigner, is lying on his back, his body twisted a little to the right, right arm and hand extended downwards, outwards, above the covers. The hand is palm up, the fingers loosely flexed. Do they tremble, or is that a trick of the embers? She wipes her eye, looks again. It is, she thinks, as if from that open hand he has let himself go, his mind like a ball of black wool rolling over the floor, unwinding, unwinding . . .
Ten quiet streets to the east, a second-floor apartment on the rue des Ecouffes, Armand Saint-Méard is sprawled in a large bed with a large woman, his landlady and paramour, Lisa Saget, widowed mother of two living children and two who went into the ground before their fifth year. More asleep than awake, she slips from the bed, squats over a bucket, pisses, dabs herself with the rag, gets back into bed. When she lies down again, the organist’s hand strolls drowsily up her thigh, plays a single slow arpeggio on the heat of her skin, then settles, rests.
To the west – west of the cemetery and the silent market, and close enough to the church of Saint-Eustache for normal speech to be unintelligible when the bells are swung – Héloïse Godard, the Austrian, is sitting fully dressed on the edge of her bed reading
The Sorrows of Young Werther
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The book, like others in her collection, was part-payment from Monsieur Ysbeau, a pleasant, scholarly sort of gentleman who runs two large bookstalls beside the river. On the first Tuesday of the month, she selects a book from the boxes while he sits on the stool behind her, his breeches round his ankles. When she turns to him, she is required to feign scandal, to rebuke him in choice language, after which he apologises, pulls up his breeches and, with a half-dozen neat movements, wraps the book.
She learnt to read courtesy of her parents, innkeepers on the Orléans–Paris road. They intended her for the catering business and had her instructed in her letters by a certain
who, leaning over the primer with her, made himself familiar with the underside of her petticoats. Later, she received the same treatment from several other of the inn’s more regular, more free-spending customers, often under the very gaze of her parents, who seemed to consider such handling an acceptable consequence of their trade, and chose to ignore her tears, her glances of mute appeal, until at last she learnt to expect nothing of them, to hide from them and from all the world any show of what she felt.
Candles are her great luxury. She reads only at night, in the hush and privacy of the night. She burns two, even three at a time. She cannot appear in the morning with bloodshot eyes. In the cold seasons, she keeps her cloak on against the room’s chill. Poor Werther is in love. (‘ “I shall see her today!” I exclaim when I wake with gladness of heart.’) Will it end badly? Ysbeau would not tell her, only smiled as if he found it surprising a woman like her should have a taste for love stories. Certainly she is no dreaming girl, no innocent. She knows about men, knows a good deal of the world’s character. But it is hard, whatever you have endured, to give up on love. Hard to stop thinking of it as a home you might one day find again. More than hard.
She licks a finger, turns the page.
Inside the church of les Innocents, in the vestry, Père Colbert is also awake. He has a bed of sorts, a truckle bed with a mattress of rags, but mostly he sleeps sitting in the wooden armchair, his big head dawdling on his chest. He drools when he sleeps. The black cloth on his chest is damp with it when he wakes. It does not signify. There is no one to see him and he should not care if there was. On the table he keeps a small lamp burning, a wick floating in oil, a small flame (blue through his glasses) that once flickered in the chapel of Saint-Sebastian. At night, in this very city, the Devil and his servants are abroad, and Père Colbert does not wish to meet them in the utter, unrelieved dark that would exist without the lamp. That he will meet them, that he must, this he is reconciled to. It may even be that he surprised one of their scouts creeping about by the organ this morning. Did the whole church not grow uneasy? Did he not hear the sleepers in the crypt let go a soft moan of fear? As for any help, anyone to share the burden of vigilance, he cannot hope for it (they say the bishop has a mistress, has fathered children). He is alone at his post, as alone as when he spent his days in the dust of Hunan Province and where one morning they dragged him to the public square and he saw, perfectly clearly among the faces in the crowd, the eyes of the Adversary, and afterwards could see nothing clearly again . . .
He watches the doors, the one leading out to the street, the other to the apse behind the altar. They are shapes, barely shapes, but he shall know if they are tried, if they are opened.
Jeanne’s bed – where she is sleeping soundly – lies along the heavy, carved foot of her grandfather’s bed. On her last birthday, her fourteenth, he carried the new bed up the stairs and told her she was too old, too womanly, to decently share a mattress with any man other than a husband. It made her weep when he said it, shake with grief, for she had slept beside him since her infancy when, between one Sunday and the next, both parents and two sisters died of a sweating fever. To be made to lie alone brought back to her a sudden blind memory of that loss, and for many nights she waited for the old man to relent, but he did not, and she has grown used to it, the new arrangement, her new status as a woman.
She is dreaming now of the cemetery carpeted with flowers, white and pink and yellow and crimson. It was a lovely dream, rich with promise, and she is smiling at it, while above her, above cracked, smoke-black beams as old as the church, the cat Ragoût sits beside the warmth of a chimneypot wiping a licked forepaw, meditatively, across his damaged ear. In the cemetery, in an archway of the south charnel, something catches his attention. He stares, grows perfectly still, then flattens himself to the tiles.
‘The minister,’ says Monsieur Lafosse, ‘accepts your proposals. You may obtain the men you need. Likewise the horses, the timber. This purse – you will sign for it, here and here – contains five hundred livres. And these are bills of exchange. You may draw on them at the house of Kellerman the goldsmith on the rue Saint-Honoré. We expect every sou to be accounted for. I assure you the minister will not be amused if, for example, he were to discover you have spent fifty livres on a new coat.’
Jean-Baptiste reddens. He has a mind to defend himself but cannot immediately think what the defence is. That he was drunk and wished to be modern? To be thought modern?
‘As for your enquiry about what is to be saved in the church, the answer is the same as you were given before. Nothing.’
‘And the old priest?’
‘We are not suggesting you demolish a priest.’
‘I mean, will he not protest?’
‘Why? It is not his church.’
‘But he will not take kindly . . .’
‘You cannot manage an old priest?’
‘I can . . . of course.’
‘Then there is no difficulty.’
‘And there is a musician. The church organist.’
‘What of him?’
‘When the church is gone, he must lose his position.’
‘One imagines so.’
‘I am told he is very skilled. Perhaps the minister . . .’
‘You are asking for the minister to concern himself with the fate of a church organist? You will be pleading next for the sexton.’
‘I had thought—’
‘You seem confused, Baratte, as to what you are here to do. You will begin your work as expeditiously as possible. You will allow no petty obstacle to impede you. If you have not commenced your work by the New Year, you will be replaced with someone more effective. Is that clear?’
‘Perfectly, monsieur. May I speak of what I am to do? My presence here gives rise to suspicions, rumours.’
‘Rumours will not be stopped by explanations.’
‘And the disposal of the remains?’
‘The bones? You will hear on the matter shortly.’
There is a moment of inhospitable quiet between them. Lafosse’s small eyes take in the room and briefly settle on the pianoforte. The contemplation of it seems to afford him some private amusement.
‘You find your new lodgings to your taste?’ he asks.
How hard to find thirty men? Not hard, in such times. But thirty good men, men who will be able to bear the work?
He has already decided where he will look for them: the mines at Valenciennes. There, in receipt of their pittances, are men inured to the type of labour that would kill others inside of a month.
He writes to Lecoeur. Lecoeur is – or was – one of the managers at the north seam. When Jean-Baptiste worked at the mines, the two of them, isolated from all society, half hidden in that damp, remote pocket of northern France, their nerves wound tight by the smoke, the noise of the gear, the occasional savagery of the place, made a sort of compact, an intimacy, though one that entirely ceased upon Jean-Baptiste’s departure.
It was their habit, particularly during that first interminable winter, to invent utopias where all that offended them, their ears, eyes, their young hearts, was made good in the imagination. Their favourite creation, the most detailed and satisfactory, was Valenciana. In Valenciana, economics and morality, virtue and industry were threaded together to the benefit and improvement of all. There were squares of small, neat houses for the families, dormitory blocks for the single men, parks where the air was clean and the children could play as others do, play and perhaps grow up less misshapen than their fathers. In Valenciana, no child under twelve would be sent down a shaft. None younger than ten would be employed on the surface as carriage-pushers, gug-winders or the like. There would be schools run by benign and educated men – men like Jean-Baptiste and Lecoeur. There would be no churches in Valenciana (an evening of especially passionate debate), though in the open spaces there would be statues of the relevant classical deities, an Athene, an Apollo, a Prometheus, though no Dionysus, no Aphrodite. Nor, at Lecoeur’s insistence, would there be anywhere men could gather to consume strong liquor. It was more than a game. They even discussed the possibility of presenting Valenciana in the form of a book and, for one night at least, shared a vivid dream of themselves making their way, shy yet assured, through the salons of the capital.
Was Lecoeur still at the mines? Would he be interested in les Innocents? The letter goes off by the midday coach to Lille, 7 November 1785.
When he enquires after horses, he is, by small degrees, directed to a young officer, who meets him in an inn by the Sèvres porcelain works on the road to Versailles. The young officer will, apparently, provide everything. It does not have to stop at horses.
In his blue coat and cream leggings (and what long, long legs he has!), the young man, who goes by the name Louis Horatio Boyer-Duboisson, seems very at home in the world. There is passing mention of a father, an estate in Burgundy. He seems to know more about Jean-Baptiste’s work than Jean-Baptiste can remember telling him. Is he connected to the minister? To Lafosse? Some neat, circular arrangement by which state funds are channelled back to the state, or at least, to its representatives? They agree to meet again in a week’s time for Jean-Baptiste to view a sample of the animals. They bow to each other, and though the engineer does not like or trust the soldier, who reminds him of a young Comte de S—, he cannot keep himself from wishing a little that he
the soldier, that he wore life like a good shirt and might, if the weather picks up, ride down to the woods and rivers of his father’s estate in Burgundy.
The weather does not pick up. Clouds tangle in the Paris chimneys. The wind is from the east. By the middle of most afternoons, it is too dark inside to read comfortably.